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How to get House and Senate bills to match up on payroll tax cut?

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

(Read caption) Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana speaks during a meeting of the Payroll Tax Conference Committee, Wednesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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Here are some things that have become obsolete in the time we’ve covered Washington: rotary telephones, wide lapels, typewriters, and congressional conference committees.

OK, maybe conference committees haven't exactly gone the way of the four-speed Pinto. There's a big one meeting Feb. 1, in fact: a congressional conference committee appointed to try to get past the impasse over extending the payroll tax cut. But this method of resolving House and Senate differences over important pieces of legislation is much less common than it used to be. It may still be a part of every Government 101 lecture on “How Bills Become Law,” but in today’s fractured Congress, leaders often turn to easier methods.

Do we need a little Gov 101, too? Often, the House and Senate pass different versions of big stuff (such as President Obama’s health-care reform). The speaker and majority leaders then appoint lawmakers to a conference committee split between Republicans and Democrats in rough proportion to their electoral strength.

These folks then get together in a room in the Capitol and horse-trade until they’ve got a deal. Then both chambers vote on it, and voilà, you’ve got a 98 on your Gov 101 final.

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