Quelling The Drama: Democrats Mum On House-Senate Health Care Negotiations

December 23, 2009 4:49 a.m.

It’s been a difficult year for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The two have clashed with each other, and Reid has clashed with his caucus, over how to solve a seemingly insoluble problem: how to push a health care bill through the Rube Goldberg-like legislative factory better known to most as the United States Senate.

But, in fits and starts, and after several near-stalls, they’ve done it. Today, 60 senators will vote to end the last of several filibusters, and tomorrow morning, more than 50 will vote to pass a single, historic piece of legislation. Time for a victory lap, right? Hardly.

Now that all 60 members of Reid’s caucus have formed a fragile alliance, though, wouldn’t you know that all anybody cares about is whether, and how, it can survive the next theater of battle–a contentious conference process where it will be merged with different, and farther-reaching, House health care legislation. In response, in a bid to keep the next weeks free of the drama of the last several months, Democrats are doing the obvious thing: keeping it extra quiet.Exhausted aides and negotiators in both the House, Senate, and White House have other things in mind. The last thing they want to do right now is fuel the disappointment many liberals feel in the product coming out of the Senate–which will likely serve as the main vessel for the final bill. They want to take a victory lap. And, more importantly, they want to come out of conference without ruffling anybody’s feathers. Thus, in an effort to keep that process from turning into a health care fight redux, and to prep a final bill before teh President’s State of the Union address early next year, everyone’s keeping as mum as possible about the current and future state of negotiations.

Discussions between principals on the Hill and at the White House have been ongoing for weeks, but getting an inside view of those discussions can at times be like milking an octopus.

House Democrats, bombarded with questions about the looming health care compromise, have switched their Blackberries to auto-reply and their voicemails to season’s greetings.

The White House declined to comment on every request.

Senate aides would rather take a victory lap than answer questions, which, by their very nature, imply that the Senate bill is a bit of a letdown for the reformist base and House Democrats.

Still, a hazy picture is emerging of what, exactly, is and will be on the table as Democrats agree on a single health care bill. The public option is out. Still in play are questions like, how the bill will be paid for–a compromise could emerge between the extremely different funding mechanisms in the two bills–and how the health insurance exchanges will be organized. (The House regulates its state exchanges at the national level, while the Senate lets states set their own standards.)

One idea gaining traction as a way to ease the disappointment of House progressives is by advancing the implementation date of the final bill’s most significant reforms.

Still, all of this is very tenuous, and, aides warn, still in its early stages. As negotiations heat up, we should know more–and we’ll tell you all about it.

Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni

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