If the House does pass a conservative conference bill, then it will be on to Clinton’s desk and the real potential for a veto if both sides haven’t settled their differences by then. Clinton has already said he will veto anything that looks like the Senate Republican bill’s consumer grievance procedures or contains many of the Republican’s proposals to improve access to insurance — things such as medical savings account expansion and insurance pools that are exempt from state benefit regulation.

Such a veto is something that the most partisan Republicans and Democrats would love to see — the better to have an issue with which to beat the other guy up in November.

The fact is that the two sides are remarkably close to a compromise and have been for two years. It has been this political dance that has kept them from acting.

Both sides agree on the core issues of a patient rights bill. Looking at both the leading Republican- and Democrat-favored bills, the similarities are striking.

During the course of the debate, most Republicans and Democrats went on record as agreeing to at least the following general principles:

Patients should have the ability to quickly take their grievances to a third party panel of expert physicians for resolution.

Patients should be able to discuss all the treatment options with their physician

Consumers should be free to go to an emergency room when it is reasonable to assume that their well-being is in jeopardy.

Consumers should have access to their medical records.

Any medical management or utilization review programs should be created by experts and be evidence based.

Patients should have prompt access to necessary specialty care.

Patients should be able to pick pediatricians and OB-GYNs as their primary care physicians.

If a doctor leaves a health plan, the patient should be able to continue to receive treatment from that physician for a transition period — usually 90 days.

Patients should have access to newly approved drugs without a prescription and clinical trials.

Consumers should have access to easy-to-understand and thorough information about how the plan works.

The Senate bill only applies to consumers covered under employer self-insured plans — leaving the states to act on fully insured plans. The House bill covers everyone, and a strong Republican majority in the House has favored the broader Democratic approach in the past. It is hard to believe this issue could not be resolved.

The big issue — a patient’s right to sue — has become a much smaller issue. Both leading Republican presidential candidates, John McCain and George W. Bush, have come out in favor of the patient’s right to sue after all appeals have been exhausted — as had all of the original Republican candidates. Leading House Republicans, including the Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), have already voted for such a right to sue in an alternative bill that lost out to the Norwood-Dingell bill in the House last fall.

The only operative difference between Republicans and Democrats over the right to sue has to do with whether the suit can take place before or after the appeals process. The House-passed Norwood-Dingell approach would allow a patient to sue in state court before the appeals process is exhausted. The Republican approach would allow the patient to sue in the usually more moderate federal court only after the appeals process had been exhausted. The issue of whether the suit should be in a state or federal court isn’t even that big an issue anymore. Recently, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, indicated that the administration might be willing to go along with the Republican preference for the suits taking place in state courts.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some important differences in the details — like what information the third party reviewers can use — but these are details that should not be hard to resolve.

These differences are hardly deal-stoppers. This is why the argument has been made that this delay and partisanship over a patient rights bill is all about 2000 election-year politics — not about who really has the best policy.