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Congress looks to avoid conference on health insurance reform

January 5th, 2010, 04:01 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s not news anymore, but it’s worth noting. Word is that the Congress will be looking to avoid a formal House-Senate conference committee on the health insurance reform bill. Discussion is already well underway in this diary by mark louis.

But like I said, it’s not exactly news. Or maybe it’s just another case of how reading Daily Kos (or Congress Matters, of course) is like getting the newspaper a week early. Because we talked about how likely this was on December 23rd, and then again two days later.

That’s not stopping TNR from reporting it like news, right down to the somewhat questionable use of the “EXCLUSIVE” label. Though I suppose it’s only fair to say that while I was describing it as one of the most likely of several scenarios, TNR now has it “exclusively” that some anonymous Hill aides say it’s a little more likely now than it was about two weeks ago when I said it was pretty likely.

And if anonymous quotes aren’t your thing, you could always go with David Dayen at FDL, who has Henry Waxman on the record about it:

Discussions are beginning early on the health care bill, although the House is not returning to session until January 12, and the Senate not until a week later. This will not be a traditional conference committee, Waxman said, because the motions to select and instruct conferees in the Senate “would need 60 votes all over again.” Instead, whatever agreements made could be packaged in an amendment to the bills passed by the House and Senate.

Why would you need 60 votes all over again? Check back with the stories from the 23rd and 25th, linked above, if you didn’t before.

Won’t the Senate need 60 votes again anyway, no matter what they do? Sure. But only once, if they opt to take care of business this way, as opposed to up to four more times if they go the conference route.

Does this mean the House is being frozen out of negotiations? Or that Progressives are? Or that something undemocratic is happening? Or non-transparent? Or that everyone who thought the bill could be “fixed in conference” was wrong?

No, not really. At least, no more so than they would have been with a formal conference. And that’s because there’s nothing magical about a formal conference. They’re not open forums where all cards must be laid on the table with the television cameras rolling. They’re just an “accountability pit stop” along the way to finishing a bill — a moment taken along the path to validate deals almost always hatched in private, anyway.

So again, as with most things involving the Congress (or any complex dealings of any kind between two or more people), the answer to all the above questions is, “Well, yes and no.”

Yes, the House will be negotiating (once again) from a position of profound weakness relative to the Senate, where cloture rules continue to allow hostage taking. But no, the House will not be shut out of the process, and its representatives in the negotiations will be responsible for striking a deal they believe can get 218 votes from their colleagues.

Yes, Progressives will likely be in an even weaker position than the House at large, because their colleagues know that few if any of them are likely to dig their heels in to put a stop to any provisions they might otherwise reject on principle. But no, they won’t be prohibited from trying to convince people they’re really, totally serious this time. Just a bit… hamstrung.

Yes, something “undemocratic” is happening — in that there won’t be the intermediate “accountability moment” where members of the conference committee go on record with their approval or disapproval of the conference report. But no, it’s not really “undemocratic” in that both the House and Senate will in fact vote openly and on the record about the product of the informal compromise, just as they would with a conference report.

Yes, something “non-transparent” is happening — in that the negotiations will not be open (much less televised, as was once promised). But no, it’s not really likely to be any less transparent than even a televised conference would have been, since it’s virtually certain that no one would have wanted to go before the cameras without knowing a deal was already in place.

And finally, yes, there will likely be no conference where whatever flaws people thought might be “fixed” there can indeed be “fixed.” But no, there probably wasn’t much chance of “fixing” any of the things that raised major objections from the grassroots in the first place. And then again, if any “fixes” are possible, nothing about the lack of a formal conference precludes such “fixes” from being adopted. The same procedural hurdles exist that existed before, and this agreement has to clear the 60-vote barrier just as surely as any conference report would.

So that’s that. Neither the House nor the Senate are back in session yet. The House returns on January 12th and the Senate on the 18th. But since the negotiations are informal, that won’t stop the key players from trying to hammer out deals beforehand — a process which probably began well before today’s news, and possibly even before we talked about it last month.


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