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Words You'll Hear: What's A Conference Committee?


We're going to dig into the tax bill a little longer for our segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we parse a word or phrase to explain a story that's going to be in the news in the coming days. This week's phrase is conference committee. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here in our studios in D.C. to explain what to expect and what's at stake. Hi, Kelsey. Thanks for coming over.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first, take us back to middle school for somebody who was playing hooky that day. What's a conference committee, and what can we expect?

SNELL: So when the House and Senate pass two bills that are similar but not exactly the same, they get together in what's known as a conference committee. The leaders go through, and they pick out a group of people from the House and from the Senate to come together and work out those differences with the hope that they can come up with something that both chambers can pass that is identical.

MARTIN: There are some key differences between the House and the Senate bills. Can you just tell us what some of them are?

SNELL: Sure. I think one of the biggest differences that people will notice is that the House bill has different tax rates for individuals than the Senate bill, and that is going to be kind of a complicated process to resolve. They have to make sure that there are the same number of brackets and that all the brackets are the same. Another big difference is that the Senate wants to retain a lot of the tax breaks that people really enjoy - things like the mortgage interest deduction and some other tax breaks that people take every day. The House bill doesn't include those, and that's in part because they're expensive to maintain. So they'll either have to figure out if they're going to keep them like the Senate does or come up with some other way to save money.

MARTIN: And isn't that important because a lot of those tax breaks that were retained were precisely the reason that a number of senators decided to support the bill in the end?

SNELL: Yeah, there was a lot of last-minute haggling, and things were added just to keep people supporting the bill. There is some hope among senators that the House will look at this bill and say, hey, it got through the Senate. We just have to accept what they did.

MARTIN: Now, this is a tax bill, as we said. But there are other things in the bill. Would you talk about those? And why are they in this bill?

SNELL: Sure. We talked about some of those giveaways to specific senators. One of those was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. That's something that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has been working on her entire career. So the Senate bill would allow that drilling. There's no mention of that in the House bill. It's unclear to me what the House feels about that, and we'll find that out next week.

The other issue is the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. So the House bill doesn't address the individual mandate at all, but it seems like they would be very open to zeroing out those penalties to effectively repeal the individual mandate. It's something they voted on before, and it's something that House Speaker Paul Ryan says he wants to do.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.