Both houses of Congress have now passed health care bills. Some people (although probably not the type of political sophisticate that reads Exploring the Political Spectrum) might think that the process is over, and the utopia of cheap and abundant health care has arrived. Aside from the procedural questions that I plan to address in this post, they would, of course, be overlooking the fact that a utopia, by definition, can never arrive.
The House and Senate bills are not identical. The major difference is that the House voted to create a government-run health insurer, the so-called "public option". The Senate rejected that idea.
Minor differences between Senate and House versions of a bill can sometimes be dealt with via informal means. One house might agree to accept the other house's bill. Or the differences can be worked out through discussions between party leaders and committee chairs in the two houses.
But major differences, such as those involving the health care bills, need to be referred to a conference committee. Anticipating public interest in the process of reconciling the health care bills, the Senate has posted this 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service, on its website.
The conference committee consists of a bipartisan group of conferees or "managers" from both houses. The chairmen and ranking Republicans of the relevant committees will, in practice, select the conferees, most of whom will probably be members of those committees. The speaker of the House and president of the Senate formally ratify those selections.
It doesn't matter whether one house has more conferees than the other. Approval of a compromise bill requires a majority vote among the House conferees, and a majority vote among the Senate conferees. Neither house can outvote the other.
If the conference committee agrees to a compromise bill, the full membership of both houses will then vote on it. The bill can still be filibustered in the Senate at that stage (except for certain budget measures that are subject to expedited procedures). Only if both houses approve an identical bill, can it go to the president for signature or veto.
Next: What are the expectations for the health care conference committee?