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House Leader Optimistic US Congress Will Merge Health Care Bills in 'Timely Fashion'

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she is optimistic that the House of Representatives and the Senate will move forcefully to merge their individual versions of sweeping health care reform legislation into one bill over the next few weeks. President Barack Obama has made clear that the health insurance reform bill is one of his top domestic priorities, and that he hopes to sign it it into law early this year.

The long-running battle to pass landmark health care reform legislation resumed in Washington Tuesday, after the Senate passed its version of the bill in an historic, party-line vote on Christmas Eve. The House had passed its version earlier.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with her Democratic leadership team at the Capitol, before heading to the White House for a meeting to discuss the final, merged bill with President Obama. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Senator Dick Durbin, both Democrats, were set to participate in the meeting with the president via conference call because they have not yet returned to Washington from the holiday break.

Media reports citing senior congressional staffers had said that House and Senate Democrats are almost certain to negotiate informally to merge the two bills, rather than convene a formal conference committee. The staffers said the House and Senate were likely to forego the formal conference procedure for what is referred to as ping-ponging, where the two chambers send legislation back and forth to one another until they finally agree on a single version of the bill.

But House Speaker Pelosi said it has not yet been decided how the two chambers wil proceed on merging the bills. "We don't know what route we will take. We will take the route that does the job for the American people,that gets this done in a timely fashion, in a city where the special interests are so entrenched, and would like any avenue in order to stop this legislation," she said.

If Pelosi and Reid do opt to forego the formal conference route, it would let Democrats avoid a series of procedural delaying tactics that Republicans are eager to use.

Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate are united against the bill, and have vowed to do everything they can to stop it from becoming law. Many Republicans say the legislation is too expensive and does not solve the problems with America's health care system. Some also admit that defeating the bill would deal a serious political blow to President Obama, which would give a boost to Republicans in a year where mid-term congressional elections are held.

But since Democrats hold majorities in both houses of Congress, their main challenge is likely to be getting moderates, conservatives and liberals within their own party to agree on a single version of the bill. The House version includes a so-called public option, a government-run alternative to private health insurance. The Senate version does not, and some conservative Democrats have threatened to vote against the bill if the public option is included. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer projected confidence that the momentum is now in favor of getting a single bill. "We expect to move very, very forcefully on this effort to bring these two bills together. We are very hopeful that we will pass a conference report in the near term, and send it to the president for his signature," he said.

Other difficult issues that have to be resolved are how to pay for the $900 billion reform bill, and some lawmakers want to make sure no government money goes to fund abortions.

After letting the House and Senate wrangle over the bill for months in 2009, the White House is expected to take a more active role in making sure the two bills get merged quickly, so that Congress can turn its attention to other pressing issues such as unemployment, immigration and climate change.