HEALTH CARE REFORM TALKS QUIETLY GET UNDERWAY…. The House returns from its winter break until Jan. 12, and the Senate reconvenes six days later. If the goal is to get health care reform finished and sent to the president’s desk before the State of the Union address — a tall order, to be sure — policy talks will have to begin long before lawmakers return to the Hill.

Apparently, the discussions quietly got underway yesterday.

Congressional aides began laying the groundwork Monday for Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to negotiate competing health care reform bills into legislation that can be signed by President Barack Obama, a senior Senate aide confirmed. […]

“Everything happening this week is happening behind the scenes,” the Senate aide said of preparations to reconcile the House and Senate bills. “Staff is taking the week to review documents. Informal staff meetings may happen, but nothing is scheduled just yet.”

There’s still a very real possibility that policymakers will skip a formal conference committee, and instead hold informal talks between White House and congressional leaders. After they agreed to a final package, the theory goes, the House would approve it before sending it, “ping-pong” style, back to the Senate, which would then pass it en route to the president. A decision on whether to pursue a formal conference or not may come as early as next week.

Time will tell whether the House-Senate negotiations will go smoothly, but in recent days, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House Majority Whip, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the DCCC, have signaled the likelihood of House support for the Senate’s version.

Update: Paul Waldman puts together the 10 “things to watch” as efforts to merge the House and Senate bills continue. “It’s not just about abortion and the public option,” he reminds us.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.