Now that the House and Senate have separately passed their versions of President Clinton's economic package -- with various factions making impacts on the legislation -- key power-brokers in each chamber will lead the effort to resolve the differences.
The spotlight will fall on two members: House Ways and Means committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and Senate Finance Committee chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. In the hands of the old-style Chicago pol and the former Harvard professor rests the fate of the measure and its countless details.
Last week, several House Democrats attempted to shift the focus of the debate. An odd coalition of conservatives led by Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., said that they want to drop any form of energy tax from the final deal. But Mr. Rostenkowski quickly moved to stifle that suggestion. "I don't think that's conferenceable" he told a reporter.
In effect, Mr. Rostenkowski and his allies said, provisions in the House and Senate-passed bills have defined the limits of what the conference committee can do. The House passed a broad-based energy tax that would raise about $72 billion in the next five years; the more limited Senate-passed increase of 4.3 cents in the tax on a gallon of gasoline would raise $24 billion.
Despite these differing versions, therefore, the strong likelihood is that the final bill will include an energy tax raising an amount between those two figures. Likewise, both bills raised the top income-tax rate for individuals from 31 percent to 36 percent; for corporations, both sides agreed to change the current 34 to 35 percent. Most likely, the House-Senate conferees will not accept anything other than those increases.
Mr. Rostenkowski's pre-emptive move illustrates an important point about the operations of a conference committee, which differ from usual House and Senate debate: Control of the big issues will rest with a handful of senior lawmakers.
Recall that, in recent weeks, Democrats from all sides of the political spectrum weighed in to extract changes in the tax bill. Liberals wanted to limit the cuts in Medicare spending. Conservatives wanted more tax breaks for business. And regional groups sought to protect the interests of local industries -- ranging from aluminum to ethanol.
In a conference committee, however, those varied factions will have less direct influence. The list of Senate conferees on the tax bill, for example, does not include David L. Boren, D-Okla., whose seniority entitled him to a seat. But Senate leaders skipped over him because they wanted to minimize the type of disruption that Mr. Boren caused when he fought to limit the additional tax on his home-state's oil industry.
Surely, Mr. Boren and other swing votes cannot be ignored. The Democrats' overriding requirement remains the need to secure a majority of votes in both houses, as they did during the initial passage.
Because the conference reports will reach each chamber as a package, however, members will have to cast an all-or-nothing vote.
Mr. Rostenkowski and Mr. Moynihan, therefore, will have to judge how much change is acceptable and how far they can push certain factions. With the help of party leaders, they will periodically inform other members of the options and get an informal sense of the political limits.
That will force senior Democrats to make choices to balance the interests of competing forces. As head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., has said that he cannot accept additional Medicare cuts beyond those already approved by the House. But conservative Democratic senators have demanded more cuts.
It's a good bet that the final deal will be somewhere between the two versions. If so, neither side will be pleased but both likely will swallow their pride and agree that the legislative art of compromise was necessary. (Not a single Republican voted for the economic package in the House or Senate. Don't expect any bipartisanship on the final deal.)
Because virtually all of these discussions will take place behind closed doors, Democrats should be able to keep details of the deal-cutting hidden not only from the news media but also from lobbyists. The rumor mills will be working overtime. As often happens in a legislative setting, however, those who talk the most may know the least.
Another interesting facet of a high-stakes conference committee is the relationship between House and Senate Leaders. That will be especially true in this case because Mr. Moynihan, who became Finance Committee chairman this year, faces his first showdown with the canny Mr. Rostenkowski.
Earlier this year, allies of the House chairman were licking their chops as they contemplated that contest. "Rosty will do fine if he is willing to let each meeting start with a Moynihan soliloquy on how [New Deal-era Sen.] Robert Wagner would have dealt" with the subject, said a Rostenkowski ally about the verbose Moynihan. But Senate sources respond that Mr. Moynihan -- with vital assistance from Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine -- did an effective job of controlling the Senate debate.
Because a conference committee has many elements of a poker game, the leaders engage in a series of tactical bluffs and xTC challenges as they decide when to yield and by how much. A Senate source predicted, for example, that the fierce opposition by many senators to the broad-based energy tax will encourage Mr. Rostenkowski to postpone a deal on that issue until later in the contest so that he can secure as many concessions as possible when he yields to a final compromise.
Although the public focus will be on Mr. Rostenkowski and Mr. Moynihan, who head the House and Senate tax-writing committees, the final drafting of the bill in the next few weeks will resemble a three-ring circus. Because President Clinton's economic package is so wide-ranging, the various pieces were crafted by 13 House committees and 13 Senate panels. In the conference committee, members from each chamber will match up on their respective provisions, and the House and Senate negotiators must agree to each piece of the puzzle. Then, a majority of the conferees will sign their names to the revised package before it is submitted to a final vote.
Will the conference report pass? No doubt, there will be further trials and tribulations in the perils-of-Pauline exercise. Many sides (including news reporters) have an interest in raising the threat of collapse. Just as was the case with the original House and Senate passage, however, Democrats appear certain to act on the basis that politically they cannot afford to fail.
Expect that each chamber will approve the final bill by a very narrow margin in the first few days of August and that Clinton will then sign it into law. The final posturing probably won't be pretty. But, for the Democrats, the win will be a win. And the nine-month process, which began right after the November election, will have given birth to an economic package with major implications for the fate of their party.
Richard Cohen is congressional correspondent for National Journal.