The Senate today rejected an amendment in the health care bill that would tighten restrictions on abortion coverage.
By a vote of 54-45, senators dismissed the abortion amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Nelson had threatened to vote no on final passage if his amendment was not included, but he declined to say today if he would abandon the Democrats' razor thin 60-vote majority.
"This makes it very hard for me to support it," Nelson told reporters after the vote.
In casting his "No" vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., acknowledged that while he may oppose abortion rights, it "doesn't mean I'm opposed to finding common ground for the greater good."
Senators today spent the majority of the day arguing the bipartisan amendment, which would prohibit private insurers that get federal money from providing abortion, and would also bar recipients of federal affordability tax credits from purchasing a policy that covers abortion.
The current language in the Senate health care bill restricts the use of public funds for abortion services. But private insurance plans that are offered in the insurance exchange can cover abortion if funds for the procedure are used only from premiums paid by beneficiaries.
The bill "does not require any current plans to cover abortion or prohibit them from doing so," Reid argued. "No one should use the issue of abortion to rob millions of the opportunity to get good health care. This is not the right place for this debate."
However, Nelson, who offered the amendment with eight Republicans and Democratic Sen. Robert Casey from Pennsylvania, argued that there should be more stringent restrictions. They wanted to take the language on abortion further and restrict coverage strictly to cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger.
The issue of abortion reflects the deep divide within Democrats and it will remain an important issue in the health care overhaul debate. The vote may alienate Nelson, who opposes abortion rights. He had threatened to reject the final bill if it did not include his amendment, and in the absence of Republican support, Democrats need Nelson's vote to break a Republican filibuster of the bill.
Even if Nelson can be brought on-board, a House bill, which narrowly passed last month, includes the more restrictive language. The Senate amendment was crafted along the lines of a similar measure that passed in the House legislation. That proposal, crafted by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., took similar steps by not only cutting federal funding for abortion-related services, but also limiting access to abortions for people who receive federal subsidies and those who purchase insurance through a health insurance exchange, a marketplace where people would be able to shop for and compare insurance plans. The two would have to be reconciled.
Seven other Democrats voted in favor of Nelson's amendment. However, two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, opposed it.
The emotional chord that the issue strikes was evident on the Senate floor.
"We cannot be distracted by detours or derailed by diversions," Reid said on the Senate floor, adding later, "This is a health care bill. It is not an abortion bill. We cannot afford to miss the big picture."
Nelson said that his amendment simply continues current law, in place for 30 years, that prohibits the use of federal dollars for abortions.
"Taxpayers shouldn't be required to pay for people's abortions. It's just that simple," Nelson said on the Senate floor. "All current federal health programs disallow the use of federal funds to help pay for health plans that include abortion. our amendment only continues that established federal policy."
Hatch, a co-sponsor of the bill, and other Republicans argued today that the current law contains a loophole that would make it easy for federal funds to be used toward abortion.
Several Democratic women gave impassioned speeches against the amendment. They said it goes much further than current law because it would ban coverage for abortion for people receiving federal assistance even if those people pay for the abortion coverage themselves with premiums. This so-called firewall between what public funds pay for in coverage and what premiums pay for is used elsewhere, but not for people on Medicare or federal employees.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the amendment a "harsh and unnecessary step back."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., saw the amendment as an attempt to roll back a woman's right to seek an abortion at all.
"They want to take away a woman's right to choose, even in the earliest stages of a pregnancy, even if it impacts her health, her ability to remain fertile, her ability to avoid a very serious health issue, such as a heart problem or a stroke," Boxer said during the debate. "They don't want to have an exception for women's health, no questions that's what they want."
The issue of abortion in the Senate has sparked nationwide debate. Anti-abortion groups say they will vigorously oppose the legislation.
"The key thing is that without an amendment that explicitly bans fed funding for abortion, you're going to see the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, a public-policy organization that opposes abortion on demand. "We see this bill as abortion business bailout. We don't want see the American taxpayers money going to subsidize abortion in this country."
Groups that favor abortion rights, on the other hand, say any extension of restriction beyond what is in the current Senate bill will move the federal government into a whole new area of restricting women in the private sector from getting abortion services, even if they pay for the premiums. Today, they lauded the Senate's decision to table the amendment.
"The Center for Reproductive Rights applauds the Senate for rejecting an attempt to seriously undermine women's health. The Nelson-Hatch amendment was a bill of goods sold as a mere continuation of federal law that, in reality, would in effect be a wholesale ban on abortion coverage for millions of women," Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. "That said, as the debate moves into the final stretch, it is absolutely critical that our elected officials hold the line against any further attempts to use the health reform debate to advance an anti-choice agenda."
Senators today spent their ninth straight day debating the health care legislation. Lawmakers worked through the weekend to debate the bill, and were paid a rare visit by President Obama, who on Sunday rallied his fellow party members and urged them to "finish the job," adding that "The most costly outcome for everyone would be from a failure to finish."
But in the 40-minute closed-door meeting, Obama did not bring up either abortion or the public option, the other hot button issue in the health care debate.
With Democratic leaders unsure if the option for government-run health insurance can get the 60 votes needed to pass, lawmakers are working behind closed doors on a compromise proposal that they hope may get more support.
One of the proposals under discussion would involve a national non-profit insurance plan, similar to the one offered to federal employees and Congressional staffers. The plan would be overseen by the Office of Personnel Management, which supervises the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. But so far, details of the plan remain murky.
The debate over abortion and the kind of public option that should be included in a health care bill reflects the deep divide within Democrats.
Most Republicans oppose the option of a government-sponsored health insurance plan altogether, and have focused their efforts chiefly on targeting Medicare cuts in the Senate bill. Republicans have offered numerous amendments to highlight the fact that the health reform effort would be paid for in large part by assuming future cost savings in Medicare and Medicaid.
With the exception of Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who sided with Democrats in passing the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee, there are few signs of bipartisanship thus far.
ABC's Zach Wolf contributed to this report