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C-SPAN Challenges Congress to Open Health Care Talks to TV Coverage

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FILE: Sen. Barack Obama first pledged opening up legislative negotiations to C-SPAN cameras during a Democratic presidential primary debate with Sen. Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2008. In this photo, Obama helps Clinton to her seat before the start of that debate. (AP Photo)AP2008

The head of C-SPAN has implored Congress to open up the last leg of health care reform negotiations to the public, as top Democrats lay plans to hash out the final product among themselves. 

C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb wrote to leaders in the House and Senate Dec. 30 urging them to open "all important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings," to televised coverage on his network. 

"The C-SPAN networks will commit the necessary resources to covering all of the sessions LIVE and in their entirety," he wrote. 

In a Tuesday afternoon press conference on health legislation negotiations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to object to the premise behind the request.

"There has never been a more open process for any legislation in anyone who’s served here’s experience," she said.

However, Republican leaders sided with C-SPAN's calls for transparency.

"As House Republican leader, I can confidently state that all House Republicans strongly endorse your proposal and stand ready to work with you to make it a reality," Minority Leader John Boehner wrote in response to the letter. "Hard-working families won't stand for having the future of their health care decided behind closed doors. These secret deliberations are a breeding ground for more of the kickbacks, shady deals and special-interest provisions that have become business as usual in Washington."

Democratic leaders could bypass the traditional conference committee process, in which lawmakers from both parties and chambers meet to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill. Top Democrats in the House, Senate and White House were meeting Tuesday evening to figure out the final product in three-way talks before sending it back to both chambers for a final vote. 

"We don't even know yet whether there's going to be a conference," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen said responding to a question about the C-SPAN request. "It's not clear whether or not that's going to happen yet."

This format would seem ideal for closed-door meetings, which congressional Democrats have used many times to figure out sensitive provisions in the health care bill -- though President Obama pledged during the campaign to open up health care talks to C-SPAN's cameras. 

"That's what I will do in bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are," Obama said at a debate against Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2008.

Asked about the request to Congress, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he hadn't seen the letter. 

"I know the president is going to begin discussions today on health care to iron out differences between the House and Senate bills," he said.

Lamb urged Congress in his letter to fling open the doors in the final stretch of the negotiations. 

"President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation's editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation's health care system," he wrote. "Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American." 

Lamb said his network would use "the latest technology" to be "as unobtrusive as possible" during the talks.