Washington (CNN) - President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will team up with the top Democrats in Congress late Tuesday afternoon to discuss heath care reform strategy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will meet with Obama and Biden in person in the Oval Office, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin will join by telephone. The White House confirms that the meeting will focus on the Democrats drive for health care reform, as well as other legislative priorities.
"The purpose of this meeting is to get everyone back in step after a well-deserved holiday break. The President and the Leaders will discuss the path forward on health care, but other topics and priorities for 2010 will also be on the agenda," a White House official told CNN.
The House passed its health care reform bill on November 7, and the Senate passed its own version on Christmas Eve. Now comes the tough task of merging the two bills into one piece of legislation. The bills differ in many ways, most importantly over the creation of a new government-run public health insurance option, anti-abortion funding provisions, anti-illegal immigration provisions, the costs of the bills, and how they are funded. (View a comparison of the two bills [PDF])
The Democrats in the the Senate, needing all 60 votes in their coalition to pass the bill, have basically no margin for error. Several moderate members of that coalition who voted for the bill last month, including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, say any major changes to the Senate legislation could force them to vote against the final merged bill with the House.
Senior Democratic sources say a formal House-Senate conference committee is unlikely because of the Republicans' ability to slow the process in the Senate. In order to hold a formal conference, conferees - members of the House and Senate - must be formally appointed by both bodies, with resolutions passed by both the Senate and the House. One Democratic leadership aide says getting those resolutions passed could delay and even derail Democratic efforts, because Republicans would be allowed to offer amendments and hold lengthy debates on the resolutions to appoint conferees. For that reason, several Democratic sources say they will probably hold informal, high level House-Senate negotiations to hash out differences on health care legislation, without holding a formal conference. Though these sources stress that no formal decision has been made.
Beyond the mechanics of House and Senate negotiations, the Democrats' timetable for finding agreement and getting a final bill to President Obama remains murky. Several Democratic sources say they hope to get a bill to the president's desk by early February, around the time of his State of the Union address, which has yet to be formally scheduled. But Speaker Pelosi already admitted last month that this deadline could slip, and both House and Senate Democratic leadership aides stressed to CNN that while leaders want to move forward as soon as possible, "there is no hard and fast deadline."
– CNN's Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, Suzanne Malveaux and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report