As congressional Democrats work toward a final healthcare bill, they appear increasingly likely to forgo the formal conference committee process for merging House and Senate versions of the legislation, opting instead for closely held negotiations between leaders from the two chambers.
Under that scenario, aides said, the House would take up and amend the Senate bill before sending it back for a vote.
In theory, the Senate could amend the new version and send it back to the House, triggering another round in a process sometimes called ping-ponging.
But Democratic leaders will try to draft a compromise version that would be acceptable to both chambers, opening the way for final congressional action this month or in early February.
House leaders will return to Washington this week to begin talks in earnest and chart the path forward. Aides stressed Monday that no final decision had been made. The entire House Democratic caucus is to meet Thursday before the House returns to business next week.
Typically, competing bills are reconciled by a conference committee composed of House and Senate chairs of key committees. But Democrats on Capitol Hill are free to fashion a more informal procedure because they aren't relying on Republican votes to pass the final bill.
For congressional Democrats and the White House, bypassing a conference committee would block Republicans from delaying the bill through filibusters or other procedural means.
In remarks to constituents in Santa Monica on Sunday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee looms as a pivotal figure in any negotiations, said he believed that Democrats would avoid a formal conference.
House Republicans on Monday argued that informal negotiations went against Democrats' pledges of government transparency.
"Something as critical as the Democrats' healthcare bill . . . shouldn't be slapped together in a shady backroom deal," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
"Skipping a real, open conference shuts out the American people and breaks one of President Obama's signature campaign promises," he said.
Just one Republican in the House and none in the Senate voted for the healthcare overhaul.
But the real challenge for Democrats won't lie in keeping the Republicans at bay; it will be holding its own unruly caucuses together long enough to push through a final version of the bill and send it to the president's desk.
Working from the Senate bill, which was passed Christmas Eve, makes more than procedural sense. Republicans could filibuster a bill in the Senate after it returns from the House, meaning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would need all Democrats, and the two independents, to support the bill to get it through.
Several moderates have already said they would withdraw their support if the final bill strayed too far from the Senate version.
Regardless of what form the talks take, points of contention include: whether to tax high-end health plans or levy a surtax on wealthy Americans to help pay for the overhaul, how tightly to restrict federal subsidy dollars from abortion coverage, and whether to include a government-run health insurer, or "public option."
Preserving the public option appears to be the most difficult objective for liberal Democrats. It's unlikely that any final bill with such a provision could garner 60 votes in the Senate.