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Next Step: Combining Senate Health Bills

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

October 13, 2009 – Negotiations to meld the Senate's competing health care bills will begin Wednesday, a process expected to last at least a week.

The meetings will be hosted by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in his spacious Senate office, according to Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose committee approved an $829 billion health care bill by a vote of 14–9 on Tuesday, will join Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who shepherded a very different version (S 1679) through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in midsummer, will negotiate with Reid. White House officials will be there as well.

The combined bill is expected to come to the floor the week of Oct. 26, according to a senior aide to Democratic leadership. "We will need to merge the bills, but then will need to get a [Congressional Budget Office] score before floor action, so it depends on that," said the aide.

Reid will have to resolve key differences between the two pieces of legislation, including whether to include any version of a government-run insurance option, a proposal that exists in the HELP Committee bill but not in Baucus' draft.

Other than Reid, Baucus, Dodd and officials from the White House, it is unclear who else will be in the sessions. A spokesman for Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, the only Republican who voted for the Finance bill, did not know if Snowe would be invited to the sessions.

But Snowe made clear before casting her vote for the Baucus draft that Democrats can't count on her support going forward unless she is satisfied with whatever emerges from the Reid-led negotiations and an eventual House-Senate conference committee.

Aides to the Senate negotiators have already started meeting, Dodd said last week, but the biggest questions—like that of the public plan—remain unresolved.

Floor action could take several weeks. Scores of amendments are expected from both sides, and Republicans will almost certainly force Reid to surmount several filibusters—which could push a vote on final passage into November.

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this story.

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