Dems agree that House will take up, tweak Senate healthcare bill

House and Senate leaders have formally agreed to bypass a bicameral conference committee to merge two healthcare bills, and have opted to instead “ping-pong” the Senate bill over to the House and back again, according to House leadership aides.

Aides said the agreement was reached during a Tuesday evening meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the top two Democrats from each chamber.

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The Senate bill will serve as the vehicle by which Democrats hope to send a healthcare bill to Obama to sign into law. Under the “ping-pong” strategy, the House will take up the Senate bill and amend it, then send it back to the Senate for final approval.

The decision was made to scrap a conference committee out of concern that Republicans in both the House and the Senate would employ a series of procedural delaying tactics, only serving to delay the inevitable and frustrate the majority, aides said.

But additional concerns had emerged by Tuesday afternoon that presented a host of new hurdles in the way of a painless formal conference committee.

On Tuesday, C-SPAN sent a letter to Democratic leaders requesting that they be permitted to film and broadcast live those conference negotiations. Many of the last-minute agreements paving the way for passage of each bill – especially in the Senate – were made behind closed doors and announced only after they had been reached.

The absence of a gathering of named conferees to work out House and Senate differences would seem to make moot the question of whether or not C-SPAN will be allowed to cover those negotiations.

By the time C-SPAN made its request, though, the conventional wisdom beginning to take root was that House leaders would have little choice but to accept most of what won a bare minimum 60 Senate votes last month.

That would mean the House’s acceptance of a bill without a government-run public health insurance option to directly compete with private insurers – an end result that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday hinted was inevitable.

Other issues – such as differences in language prohibiting federal dollars from paying for abortion coverage, and tax provisions designed to raise revenue to pay for the bill – will still need to win consensus in one or the other chamber.  And where Pelosi signaled an acceptance of the Senate’s approach to the mechanism for providing coverage to millions of Americans, she signaled just as strongly that she much prefers the House’s tax structure, which increases income taxes on the wealthiest Americans in lieu of levying taxes on high-cost insurance plans, as the Senate’s bill does.

Congressional aides also said that Obama told House and Senate leaders that he wanted to strengthen the affordability measures beyond those in the Senate bill, a signal that House Democrats interpreted to mean that Obama will urge the Senate to warm up to the House’s more generous and more widely available – but also more expensive – subsidies designed to help Americans afford health insurance that will be newly mandated.

After huddling among themselves at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, House leaders will return to the White House for a 2:30 p.m. meeting with the president and Senate Democratic leaders.

Jeffrey Young contributed to this article