Top Dem chairman signals House will act first on healthcare

The House could act first to pass a healthcare bill within the next month, a top House chairman signaled Thursday.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), suggested that the House may pass the Senate bill before any other action is taken -- a key concession to Senate Democrats.

"The choreography gets a little complicated here, but the House will present a reconciliation bill," Miller said during an appearance on MSNBC. "It will be based on many of the principles that the president put forth to correct some of the problems the House and others have had with the Senate bill."

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But since Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in late January,  talks had stalled over how to proceed with healthcare, with House Democratic leaders saying only that they lacked trust in the Senate's ability to act.

Miller conceded that the House may have to pass the healthcare bill first approved by the Senate in December before the Congress can take up a bill using the reconciliation process in order to make fixes to the Senate bill. Using that process, the Senate could approve those changes with only a simple majority vote, instead of the 60 votes usually needed to end a filibuster.

"That may require us to pass the Senate bill first and then send the reconciliation bill to the Senate for them to pass," Miller said. "I think Sen. Reid believes he can put the votes together for that."

Pelosi herself had said she lacked the votes for the Senate bill as-is, though key senators like Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) had warned that health reform may be "dead" if the House didn't act first, due to the procedural rules in play.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Thursday night it was unimportant to House Democrats aren't worried about who acts first, so long as a reconciliation bill was packaged to fix the Senate bill.

Still, Miller said that Democrats eyed finishing work on healthcare in the next month -- less than the 60-day timeline laid out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

"That means that I would hope we get it done this month," he said. "And hopefully the leadership will come together and figure out where we are as a result of the summit yesterday."

But the Education and Labor chairman, who oversaw key parts of writing the healthcare bill in the House, said the vote wouldn't ultimately be held until Democrats were confident they had enough for passage.

"When we take up the bill we'll have the votes. I think that will be relatively soon," he said. "I don't think there's any reason to wait any longer to do this."