Lawmakers pan plan to skip conference on health bill

House Republican leaders and some members of the House Democratic Caucus are lashing out at plans by congressional leaders to develop compromise healthcare legislation without going through a formal conference committee.

Democratic leaders and President Obama will discuss how to proceed at a White House meeting Tuesday afternoon. They are trying to find a way to resolve differences in House and Senate bills before Obama's State of the Union speech so they can focus on the economy during the run-up to congressional elections in November.

Bypassing a formal conference committee could allow Democratic leaders to sidestep procedural delays by Republicans, particularly in the Senate. The process would involve leaders shuttling the measure back and forth, sometimes proposing alternatives in the form of amendments, until both chambers have agreed to the same text.

That idea was skewered by Republicans, who spoke in favor of C-SPAN's request that Democratic leaders allow television coverage of healthcare negotiations. The Dec. 30 letter from C-SPAN President and CEO Brian Lamb was released Tuesday.

"Skipping a real, open conference shuts out the American people and breaks one of President Obama's signature campaign promises," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Added House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana: "The American people deserve a seat at the table. I call on the president and the Democrat leadership to take healthcare reform out of the smoke-filled rooms on Capitol Hill and to put it on C-SPAN."

Some Democrats were also unhappy with the idea of skipping a conference to settle differences in the bills.

"I am disappointed that there will be no formal conference process by which various constituencies can impact the discussion. I have not been approached about my concerns with the Senate bill, and I will be raising those at the Democratic Caucus meeting on Thursday," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"I and other progressives saw a conference as a means to improve the bill and have a real debate, and now with this behind-the-scenes approach, we're concerned even more," he said.

Before heading to the White House later with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., huddled with key committee chairmen to discuss how to proceed. Democratic aides said the main focus was what guarantees the House would demand in any plan to bypass a formal conference.

"Every issue is difficult to resolve between the House and Senate. ... I think the important thing for us now is to close ranks behind the president and get a bill done," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut, who attended the meeting with Pelosi and other Democrats.

Anna Edney contributed to this report.

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