House Democrats have opted to send six of their biggest guns to the healthcare negotiating table to iron out a deal with the Senate, according to a House leadership aide.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) will be in the room when major decisions are made in the weeks ahead.
It is unclear whom the Senate will be bringing to the table.
Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office would not specify which senators, beyond Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Banking
Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), would be directly involved in the end-stage talks. Dodd helped move an early version of the healthcare bill through the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) Health panel.
“Sen. Reid has been, and continues to be, in contact with his Senate colleagues,” Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said in response to The Hill’s inquiry.
No Republicans are expected to attend the closed-door meetings.
C-SPAN has called on Democratic leaders to allow it to televise the healthcare negotiations, but the request has not been granted. GOP leaders have echoed C-SPAN’s call, as has the Society of Professional Journalists.
Healthcare reform will be on the agenda when a dozen lawmakers meet privately with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday. The House’s six negotiators will attend, as well as Sens. Reid, Baucus, Dodd, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). It is likely that these five senators will represent the upper chamber on a healthcare reform compromise.
The absence of a formal bicameral conference committee leaves Reid and Pelosi with much leeway in determining who should be in the room when the last of the deals are cut between the two chambers.
Certainly, there will be many side discussions with lawmakers in the days and weeks ahead on issues ranging from abortion to immigration-related provisions to community health centers.
The real power brokers, however, will be in the room, flanked by staff and officials from the White House.
The Speaker’s decision to appoint Hoyer and her three chairmen into broader discussions with Reid and other Senate leaders is telling.
Waxman and Miller, in particular, have been by her side since the inception of the House healthcare bill, corralling votes on their respective committees and providing policy expertise.
Hoyer has steered the bill back toward the political center at times and helped keep many centrists from voting no on the measure that passed the lower chamber in November.
With conventional wisdom suggesting that vast portions of the House bill will be replaced by those in the Senate bill, Pelosi will need not only strong voices at the table with her, but sound counsel to ensure she can corral 218 votes on whatever ends up in the conference measure.
Capping the number of House negotiators, though, does cut out many additional voices that were as critical as any others and a handful of instrumental subcommittee chairmen, including Reps. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Robert Andrews (D-N.J.).
Yet there appear to be no bruised egos on the House side.
“The congressman’s been involved from the beginning and plans on being involved for as long as necessary,” said Pallone spokesman Richard McGrath.
“At some point some of the decisions will be made at the top echelons, and that’s perfectly appropriate.”
The same may not hold true in the Senate.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) last year publicly expressed his displeasure that he was not part of the bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which was led by Baucus.
Two weeks before the Senate passed its healthcare bill in December, Rockefeller told The Hill he expected to be front and center during the final talks with the House.
“I’ve been told I will be on the conference, but I’m not sure we’ll have a conference,” Rockefeller said at the time. “I was told by someone who would be in position to tell me these things,” he said, declining to specify whether he was referring to Reid.
Rockefeller, who supports a public option, heads the Finance subcommittee on health.
In a Tuesday statement to The Hill, Rockefeller said, “I applaud my colleagues for their hard work, dedication and diligence to bring us to the cusp of enacting real reform.”
Other Democratic senators, particularly those who have worked intently on the healthcare bill, have wish lists for the final bill and will be pressing Reid on a plethora of issues, from the excise tax on high-cost health insurance plans to the insurance subsidy amounts to Medicaid funding.
One centrist senator at the middle of the toughest fights in the Senate on abortion, Medicaid funding and the public option, Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), has remained in close contact with Reid.
At the same time, Nelson does not expect to actually attend any talks between House and Senate leaders and the White House over the coming weeks, said spokesman Jake Thompson.
“He’s not attending meetings, but he’s been informed so far,” Thompson said. “It’s informal, but it’s, so far, open lines of communication back and forth” both between the two senators and at the staff level, he said.