Dec. 7, 2009 -- With the momentum for health care legislation gaining pace, Senators will face one of their biggest hurdles, a proposal to block federally subsidized health insurance plans from covering abortion.
The bipartisan amendment in the health care bill, proposed today by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska with eight Republicans and Democratic Sen. Robert Casey from Pennsylvania, is similar to a measure already passed in the House health care legislation. It 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 amendment is expected to come to a vote on Tuesday.
The House amendment, 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 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.
"As written, the Senate health care bill allows taxpayer dollars, directly and indirectly, to pay for insurance plans that cover abortion," Nelson said in a statement. "For more than 30 years, taxpayers' money hasn't been used for abortions, a standard that has the broad support of the American people. This rule now applies to federal health programs covering veterans, federal employees, Native Americans, active duty service members and others, and should extend to those covered by any new health care bill."
Democrats are deeply divided over the abortion language in the bill. Casey today expressed optimism that his party members will come to a consensus on the issue, even as some liberal Democrats expressed outrage.
"The public option obviously is a lot more similar or akin to Medicaid, a government program that has public money," Casey said in an interview with MSNBC today. "It is more difficult -- and this is where the conflict arises -- in the exchange, something we've never had to deal with before. But I believe that the intent of a lot of members of the Senate on the pro-choice and pro-life side is to prevent public dollars, taxpayer dollars from paying for abortion."
Liberal Democrats say such a move must be defeated because it would bar even those procedures that would be paid for by the consumers themselves.
"Let's be clear, the bill as it stands does continue the current law. What this amendment does, is it goes further. You can't use private money in the private market and, frankly, I think that goes too far," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said on CBS' "The Early Show" today.
"I think the majority of the Senate will oppose this amendment and leave the current law in place: no federal money for abortion services," McCaskill added.
Even though his forthcoming proposal has outraged some liberal Democrats such as McCaskill, Nelson has threatened to reject the final bill if it is not included, putting an all-important 60-vote count in jeopardy.
"At the end of the day we need Senator Nelson's vote. We still don't have a promise of a vote from the Republican side, so we would need his vote," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Friday.
The issue of abortion in the Senate has sparked nationwide debate. Anti-abortion groups say they will vigorously oppose the legislation if the abortion amendment does not pass.
"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.
"Our position is that where the Senate bill started was already a compromise for pro-choice supporters in this country," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "And that compromise should be satisfactory to any anti-choice senators. And what they are trying to do is use this health care debate, which is so important to uninsured Americans and others, to advance their anti choice agenda, and that's wrong."
Abortion Topic of the Day in Health Care Debate
Senators are on their eight straight day of debate on 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.
Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was not bothered that the president did not address abortion or the public option.
"Progress is being made and that's not just talk," Reid said. "We've made a lot of progress."
Public Option Another Hot Button Issue in 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.
On Friday, Democrats, with a vote of 57-41, defeated Republican efforts to restore $120 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage, a private insurance plan within Medicare.
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. Yet Democratic leaders said they are close to achieving their goal of a health care bill.
"We've written a good bill that will make it possible for every single American to afford to stay healthy," Reid said at the start of today's session. "Yet while the American people want us to act, our Republican colleagues in the Senate want nothing more than for us to do nothing."