"The House and Senate aren't officially back in session until later this month, but action is already well under way on merging their health-care bills," The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog reports. "One initial leaning: A Senate aide tells [the blog] that the two chambers plan to skip the formal conference process so they can deliver a final health-care bill to President Barack Obama more quickly." Following this path would "allow the Senate to avoid a series of procedural hurdles. ... There would still be plenty of talks between leaders of the two chambers, just not under the conference-committee rubric." Under one possible scenario, the House would "first pass an amended version of the Senate bill that includes all the compromise provisions negotiators have worked out. ... The Senate would then pass the amended version as well, producing a unified bill for the president to sign" (Adamy and Hitt, 1/4).
The New York Times: House Democratic leaders will meet Tuesday to start discussions about merging the health bill their chamber approved with the version passed by the Senate late in December. "Party leaders, including the committee chairmen who led the drafting of the legislation, will negotiate to resolve the various differences between the two bills. And then each chamber will adopt updated versions in a process known as a 'ping-pong,' until the House and Senate have adopted identical bills. If negotiations go as planned, there may be just one volley: the House may adopt a revised version of the Senate bill and then slap it over to the Senate, where it could be approved and sent to the White House for President Obama’s signature." The House of Representatives is scheduled to return to Washington next week. The Senate returns a week later (Herszenhorn, 1/4).
Los Angeles Times: "In remarks to constituents in Santa Monica on Sunday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee looms as a pivotal figure in any negotiations, said he believed that Democrats would avoid a formal conference" (Oliphant, 1/5).
The Associated Press reports that this strategy will exclude Republicans. Under the customary conference format "a committee chairman is appointed to preside, and other senior lawmakers from both parties and houses participate in typically perfunctory public meetings while the meaningful negotiations occur behind closed doors." That wouldn't happen with the latest plan, designed to stop three separate filibuster attempts Republicans could mount.
"The unofficial timetable calls for final passage of the measure to remake the nation's health care system by the time President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, probably in early February" (Espo, 1/5).
Politico: "The four relevant House chairmen will meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team at 1 o'clock [Tuesday] in the speaker's Capitol office to start setting the parameters for negotiations with the Senate." Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will then go to the White House to meet with Obama to discuss the bill. "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and party Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will participate in the meeting via conference call because neither has returned to Washington from the holiday break" (O'Connor, 1/4).
An aide told CQ Politics that "that the full House Democratic caucus will meet on Thursday, with some members joining in by phone, to discuss the House strategy going forward. 'We'll go from there,' said the aide" (1/4).
Roll Call reports in the meantime that most on the Senate side say that the House will have to give up more of its bill in order to preserve the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass the legislation. "Given the arm-twisting and deal-making that characterized the Senate's eventual Christmas Eve passage of its bill, Senate aides said much of the capitulation on a unified health care bill would need to come from the House." Compromises could come over taxing high-cost insurance plans, the level of subsidy for poorer Americans and the role of a national — as in the House — or state-based, as in the Senate, insurance exchanges (Pierce and Dennis, 1/4).
CongressDaily on the proposal to tax high-cost insurance plans: "A senior Democratic leadership aide said the House is prepared to accept a Cadillac tax as long as the threshold for premiums considered high cost is raised so union plans are exempt, while some of the funding gap from the change will be filled in with the House's tax on the wealthy, only with a raised floor for what is considered wealthy." The House version currently taxes individuals earning more than $500,000 or couples earning more than $1 million a 5.4 percent excise tax (Edney, 1/4).
Bloomberg/BusinessWeek reports that "U.S. Democrats will likely drop the idea of setting up a new government-run insurance program as they try to quickly resolve differences between House and Senate health-care bills, party members in both chambers said." Sen. Durbin said, "It's 'not likely' the public option will make the final bill" (Jensen and Dopp, 1/5).