The Speaker’s Lobby: Turducken

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

24 December 2009

Millions of families will serve turkey for their Christmas feast tomorrow. Others will sit down to chicken. Some may devour something a little more gamey, like duck.

And if you prefer all three, perhaps an enterprising chef will craft the Frankenstein of Yuletide entrees: a turducken.

A turducken is a small, de-boned chicken, tucked into the cavity of a filleted duck, which in turn is stuffed into the shell of a giant turkey. After many hours in the oven, the juices, flavors and spices of all three fowl blend together into an aromatic, palate-pleasing sensation. But to truly enjoy turducken, you have to like how they all taste when merged. And how they taste on their own.

I don’t know how many U.S. Representatives and Senators will dish up a turducken over the holidays. But a legislative turducken is certainly on the Congressional menu the next few weeks as lawmakers and aides start to mix the House’s version of the health care reform bill with the package the Senate is scheduled to approve this morning. Like the turducken, they’ll have to wrap portions of the House health care bill inside sections of the Senate health care bill. Then hem in a few more provisions to make everyone happy. All inside the carcass of the initial intent of the health care legislation. That’s because when lawmakers feast on the bird, they’ll peal through the layers to make sure they can taste the flavors they ordered up when they first voted for the legislation.

They’ll have to cook the health care turducken just right so the juices of the House’s government-run “public option” jells with the Senate’s decision to drop a government-backed insurance program. The parliamentary gourmets must ensure that the anti-abortion amendment prepared by sous chef and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) gibes with the demi-glaze whipped up by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE). And back in the Congressional kitchen, the hash slingers have to figure out a way to pay for the turducken. The House plans to tax the wealthy. The Senate levies so-called “Cadillac” insurance plans to generate revenue.

The first cook to rubber his way into the kitchen was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

“Many of you have asked whether (the House) is simply going to take the Senate bill,” Hoyer said a few weeks ago  to reporters. “That’s not going to happen.”

“The notion that the House is going to rubberstamp the Senate bill is wrong,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) on FOX News Radio.

Of course, the kitchen lawmakers will use to prepare the turducken is a conference committee. Textbooks make a conference committee sound like weekend church retreat for married couples in the mountains. The books describe the conference committee as a place where lawmakers from both the House and Senate “reconcile their differences” over bills passed by both chambers of Congress. And “once a compromise is ironed out” the House and Senate then adopt the new bill and send it to the president.

Frankly, conference committees are brawls to begin with. But this one could take the cake. Think of it as Ali-Frazier. Godzilla vs. Mothra. Tiger Woods against his wife.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) knows it will be a donnybrook to synchronize the House and Senate bills. That’s why he deflected questions about the conference committee late Wednesday. Instead, the leader spoke of spending quiet time at his home in Searchlight, NV.

“I’m not going to talk about the conference,” said Reid. “I’m just going to sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus.”

Certainly, much of the final version will be arranged behind closed doors. Expect to see lawmakers exiting the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Reid with glops of mustard, cracked eggs, cookie dough and ketchup dripping from their clothes as though they’ve been in a massive food fight.

And it didn’t take long for the food fight to begin.

“For Congress to achieve true health care reform we must have a meaningful conference process that integrates both bills into the best possible piece of legislation for the American people,” wrote Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) in a joint statement.

House liberals like Woolsey and Lee feel they’ve gotten the shaft in this health care reform bill. Many of them originally advocated a “single-payer” system where the government picks up the tab for all health bills. Then they got a watered-down version of the “public option” in the House bill and virtually no public option in the Senate legislation. Abortion-rights lawmakers grimaced when Pelosi attached the Stupak amendment (which creates a firewall so federal dollars can’t be used for abortions) to the House package. The Stupak amendment secured the votes of conservative, anti-abortion Democrats. Otherwise, the measure would have died in the House. So those on the left believe they’ve already given their pound of flesh for this legislation.

“Several key provisions of the House bill must be included in any final bill,” wrote Woolsey and Lee, insisting on a public option, affordability protections and taxes on the wealthy to pay for the health program.

Meantime, Bart Stupak and many other pro-life House Democrats are dubious about the anti-abortion language written into the Senate legislation by Ben Nelson. Stupak went as far to call Nelson’s plan “unacceptable.” Go too far one way on the abortion issue, and Pelosi and Reid lose the liberals. Tilt too far the other direction, and the moderates jump ship.

“There’s significant, important differences between what the Senate is proposing and what we proposed. And those matters will have to be discussed,” said Steny Hoyer. “It’ll take some time, I think, to resolve those differences.”

What Hoyer means by “some time” is unclear. Senior Congressional officials acknowledge it’s unlikely the House and Senate can brew a final bill by President Obama’s State of the Union address in about a month. And lugging the final version of the legislation through the House and hop scotching the Senate’s special parliamentary hurdles is expected to be more arduous than the first round.

Yes, go anywhere near the Capitol and you should be able to hear the Congressional Cuisanart mixing the bills together.

As for that turducken, you might opt to stick with traditional fare at your banquet table this holiday season. Turduckens require a lot of work. This one might be ready for Easter.

Or perhaps next Christmas at the very latest.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.