PING-PONG PLAY…. The final stage of negotiations over health care reform quietly got underway last week, despite the fact that lawmakers won’t return to the Hill for another couple of weeks. One of the first key decisions to be made has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with procedure — will Democratic leaders skip the formal conference committee?

Jonathan Cohn reported late last night that the leadership seems to have made up its mind, thanks to obstinate signals from Republicans.

According to a pair of senior Capitol Hill staffers, one from each chamber, House and Senate Democrats are “almost certain” to negotiate informally rather than convene a formal conference committee. Doing so would allow Democrats to avoid a series of procedural steps–not least among them, a series of special motions in the Senate, each requiring a vote with full debate — that Republicans could use to stall deliberations, just as they did in November and December.

“There will almost certainly be full negotiations but no formal conference,” the House staffer says. “There are too many procedural hurdles to go the formal conference route in the Senate.”

Remember, one of the downsides of going through the conference committee is that it would take much longer — conferees would have to be approved by both chambers, and Republicans intended to use more obstructionist tactics to slow down the process as much as possible. Rather than waste weeks playing pointless games with the GOP, Democratic leaders can, and apparently will, expedite matters and shape the bill on their own. As the Senate staffer told Cohn, “I think the Republicans have made our decision for us.”

The GOP will, no doubt, complain bitterly about not having a seat at the table when the final bill is being crafted. But no one can seriously argue with a straight face that Republicans have anything constructive to offer. Why should Dems welcome GOP input on an initiative the minority is still trying to kill?

In terms of how the process would work if policymakers bypass the conference committee, expect the Democratic leadership from both chambers* to sit down with top White House officials to work out the final package. From there, the House would likely approve the bill, before sending it to the Senate (“ping pong”), where it would have to overcome one more GOP filibuster. With 60 votes, the legislation would then go to the White House for a signature, probably before the month’s end.

At that point, policymakers could get to work on about a dozen other issues in desperate need of attention — jobs bill, Wall Street reform, climate change, etc. — during a difficult election year.

* corrected

Steve Benen

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.