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Ping Pong It Is

January 4, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The civics-textbook version of what happens next to the health care bill is that Senate and the House leaders sit down in a “conference committee” to work out agreements on all the areas that their versions of the bill differ. Once an agreement is found, the members of the conference committee take a vote on the blended bill they produce and send it back to both chambers for final approval.

But that’s not what’s going to happen with the health care bill. Rather than using a formal conference committee, the Democratic leadership has decided to work out a blended bill through informal negotiations and then, when they have an agreement they think can get 60 votes in the Senate and 218 in the House, send it to the House for passage as an amendment to the Senate bill and then send the Senate bill as amended by the House back to the Senate for a cloture vote and a final vote on passage. This is known as “ping-ponging,” and the Democrats are going to do it with the health care bill not because they are trying to rush the bill through without deliberation, but because Democrats in the Senate don’t want to sit through a hundred more hours of filibustering and procedural votes when passage of the bill is all but guaranteed.

The Senate already went through hundreds of hours of debating day and night on procedural motions leading up to the vote to approve their bill on Christmas Eve. Once the deal was struck in mid December that won the support of every Democrat by dropping the public option, there was never any chance the bill could be derailed. On every single procedural vote leading up to the final vote and the final vote itself, every Democrat voted “yes” and every Republican voted “no.” The Republicans’ filibusters made it into the second longest debate in Senate history. But they had no practical effect besides delaying the inevitable passage of the bill. If the Democrats used the conference committee process now, they would be susceptible to several more Republican filibusters and a lot more time wasted on procedural hurdles (see here).

As David Waldman at Congress Matters explains, the ping-ponging process will, in some ways, be less transparent than the conference committee process would be. Under House and Senate rules, conference committee meetings must be open to the public and at least one of the meetings has to be televised. Also, under the conference committee route, committee members would have to go down on the record in support of the blended bill — also known as a “conference report” — before it can go back to the two chambers. The report would also have to be posted online for 48 hours before the conference committee vote. But as Waldman explains, even when a formal conference committee is used, the meaningful negotiating still happens behind-the-scenes. Most of the important deal-making happens in the proverbial cloakroom before being brought to the committee meeting to be formalized.

Still, the ping-ponging process, even though it’s being used to avoid meaningless delay, could end up blocking opportunities for the bill to be improved. If the Democrats had chosen to go with a conference committee, the Republicans in the committee would have had one more chance to give their input on the bill. Ping-ponging the bill will close them out of the blending process entirely. The process from here on out will be focused on winning the support of a few key swing votes — the Bart Stupaks and Joe Liebermans of the world — at the expense of considering other members’ good ideas, be they Republican or Democrat.

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