No Conference For Health Bill...GOP Attacks To Follow

Democrats are "almost certain" to bypass the conference process to pass a merged health care bill through both chambers of Congress, according to two senior Democratic Hill staffers (one from the House and one from the Senate), The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn reports--a decision that will likely fuel some GOP attacks on health reform.

Instead of convening a formal conference committee--where a handful of lawmakers of both parties from the House and Senate negotiate to hammer out a final bill--Democrats from the both chambers will likely meet privately, without Republicans, to finalize a bill that will be sent back to each chamber for final passage.

Doing so would allow Democrats to get the bill done faster, in the face of probably GOP stalling tactics. Democrats are looking to put a bill on President Obama's desk before he delivers a State of the Union address (having missed the previous August and Christmas deadlines), and Republicans have indicated for some time that it's their goal to do everything in their power to block the bill.

The downside for Democrats: fueling GOP claims that health reform hasn't been transparent. One of the GOP's prime talking points against Democratic health reform is that it's been done in a back-room fashion by a party and a White House that promised unprecedented transparency in governing. It's a line that has featured prominently in comments by Republican leaders and party press releases attacking Democratic lawmakers running for reelection in 2010.

In keeping with that, House Minority Leader John Boehner's office blasted the Democrats' no-conference plans today, calling the method of sausage-making a "disgrace."

"Something as critical as the Democrats' health care bill, with its Medicare cuts and tax hikes, shouldn't be slapped together in a shady backroom deal.  Skipping a real, open Conference shuts out the American people and breaks one of President Obama's signature campaign promises.  It would be a disgrace -- to the Democratic leaders if they do it, and to every Democratic Member who lets them," spokesman Michael Steele said when asked for comment.

"As a campaign issue, I would say, come Election Day, voters will be reminded of the long list of Democrats' broken promises, particularly their complete failure to live up to a vow of the most open and ethical Congress in history," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said.