WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Congressional Democratic leaders are sidestepping a formal conference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to merge their two versions of healthcare overhaul legislation. Instead, they will settle their differences in closed-door talks that also will include top White House officials.
The decision shuts Republican opponents out of the process in an effort to move a final bill quickly to the president’s desk. It has prompted Republican leaders and even some Democrats to complain about a lack of transparency.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs faced two days of questioning this week over whether President Barack Obama was violating his campaign pledge to conduct an open process that would be televised on the C-Span network.
Here are some questions and answers about the final effort to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill.
Q: What is a conference committee?
A: A conference committee is appointed by the House and the Senate to settle differences between the two bodies on legislation. Who serves on the committee is up to House and Senate leaders, but it usually comprises senior members of the committees that originated the legislation. Both parties are represented, but the committee makeup would reflect the majority control of each chamber. In this case, Democrats control both chambers and a healthcare conference committee would have been controlled by Democrats.
Q: What is the advantage of bypassing a formal conference?
A: The process of going to conference takes time and Democrats are anxious to deliver a healthcare overhaul bill to Obama as quickly as possible, perhaps before his annual State of the Union address to Congress that is expected to take place later in January or early February.
Republicans solidly oppose the Democratic legislation and would likely have used the process of naming a conference to slow down the measure and build more opposition to it before the November congressional elections.
Since no Republicans in the Senate voted for the bill, and only one in the House supported it, Democrats were always going to focus the negotiations on settling differences among themselves.
In theory, a conference committee is suppose to be open to the public, and the cable industry service channel C-Span was eager to broadcast deliberations on the healthcare bill.
The reality is that no matter which party controls Congress, bargaining over legislation takes place behind closed doors. Open conference committee sessions are used for little more than making statements about the bill.
Closed-door talks between the House and Senate are nothing new. Negotiations on President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit for the elderly were held in closed-door sessions.
Q: What is the disadvantage?
A: Democrats are taking considerable political heat from Republicans over bypassing the conference process because Obama promised during his presidential campaign to keep deliberations over the healthcare bill open to public scrutiny.
Q: How will the two bills be merged.
A: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will lead negotiations between the two chambers and the White House. There are significant differences over abortion, taxes, insurance subsidies and regulatory control of proposed new insurance exchanges to be worked out. But the two bills are similar in their structure and many analysts believe a final bill will emerge within weeks.
The legislation will have to be submitted to the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan office that analyzes legislation, for an official cost estimate. That process could take up to two weeks. Then the final bill must be passed by the House and Senate before going to Obama to be signed into law.
The legislation could be open to amendment in the Senate, but Reid has some procedural tools he could use to shut out Republican efforts to change the bill. (Reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by David Alexander and Peter Cooney)