BOSTON — If Beacon Hill lawmakers plan to get major economic development and health care bills in and out of conference committee by Friday, it will likely not be pretty, or transparent.
The jobs bill cleared the House 156-3 on Tuesday night, following two days of marathon sessions, and the House then launched into consideration of a bill that sponsors said takes a surgical approach to health care issues like telemedicine and support for community hospitals. That debate continues Wednesday.
The Senate, meantime, addressed its health care priorities earlier in the session and plans Wednesday to tackle the economic development bill, which contains legalized sports betting and a major housing production proposal. With the formal session calendar expiring Friday, senators anxious not to see priorities die filed 361 amendments on a variety of topics to the jobs bill, which carries an extra level of importance given that Massachusetts has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and desperately needs to bring jobs back.
With three days left for formal sessions, none of three conference committees formed to strike compromises on key bills that have cleared each branch have reached agreements. Those bills deal with policing reforms and accountability, transportation spending, and information technology investments.
Given the volume of unfinished work, it's looking less and less likely that the House and Senate will be able to move consensus health care bills to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk by Friday at midnight. Under a best case scenario, House and Senate Democrats would have to get the bills into conference committee later Wednesday or Thursday and those conferences would have to slap together agreements after extremely limited deliberations.
Adding to the degree of difficulty: lawmakers are working together but apart during the COVID-19 emergency. The policing bill conferees, for instance, held their first meeting Tuesday via Zoom. Face-to-face talks in groups — the way business has been done for decades — are often not possible and while remote deliberations have enabled legislating to continue, it presents its own challenges: buffering livestreams, access challenges, and a certain disconnectedness.
And there is also the fatigue factor. The House has already met for five consecutive weekday days and nights, with some members at the Statehouse and most participating in sessions by telephone. Both branches have full workloads ahead for Wednesday's sessions, but legislators may not be at their sharpest.
Partisan divisions do not loom as an obstacle since Democrats hold super-majorities in both branches, but intraparty squabbling does. The institutional rivalry between the House and Senate, which is always a factor, can become the determining factor in times like these. With Democrats in each branch convinced they have the best approach to public policy solutions, budging from one's position and finding compromise often becomes more difficult.
The tension this year is especially palpable between House and Senate Democrats over health care, with leaders in both branches jabbing at each other on the two-year anniversary of health care negotiations that famously failed at the end of formal sessions in 2018.
There's much on the line here. On Tuesday night, after highlighting the House health care bill's provisions, which also touch on out-of-network billing and scope of practice issues for nurse practitioners, House Majority Leader Ron Mariano said it's important for the Legislature to show Massachusetts residents that the health care system will be stable during the ongoing pandemic.
Over the years, nothing has done more to force compromise among legislators than a hard deadline, but this year's July 31 deadline has a squishier feel.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in a late-night interview with the News Service on Friday, described the possibility that the House and Senate might agree to return after July 31 to consider bills that have been approved in each branch and are awaiting reconciliation in six-member conference committees.
"I would hate to see those not move on," DeLeo said. "So I would imagine it would [be] at least maybe things that are in conference but again, we really have to straighten that out and get consensus, or an agreement, with our Senate counterparts."
Senate leaders have said they remain focused on making as much progress this week as possible toward sending major bills to Baker's desk but acknowledge the idea of extended sessions for bills in conference committee has been discussed with the House.
Without a full-year fiscal 2021 budget or even a post-pandemic budget proposal on the table, the House and Senate out of necessity quickly agreed to a plan Tuesday to prevent a state government shutdown. They sent Gov. Baker a $16.5 billion interim budget to keep state government functioning through October.