Does Sen. Ben Nelson Stand in the Way of Health Care Victory for Democrats?

Conservative Nebraska Democrat is standing steadfast on the issue of abortion.

ByABC News
December 17, 2009, 4:42 PM

Dec. 18, 2009— -- It is an age-old issue that has caused many a conflict.

For 36 years, the controversial Roe v. Wade decision set the ground rules for abortion law in the United States, but the issue has continued to simmer beneath the political surface. With the momentum to get a health care bill passed by the end of the year, it is now threatening to boil over and derail the health care legislation, and one senator is leading the helm -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Nelson, 68, is a longtime abortion opponent. His amendment to tighten restrictions on federal funding for abortion was struck down in the Senate on Dec. 8, even though a similar measure passed in the House.

Since then, Nelson has ratcheted up the heat and is threatening to filibuster with Republicans if language similar to what he proposed is not included in the health care bill.

"The compromise adds important new initiatives addressing teen pregnancy and tax credits to help with adoptions," Nelson said Thursday in a written statement, referring to a compromise offered by a fellow anti-abortion Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. "These are valuable improvements that will make a positive difference and promote life. But as it is, without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient."

Nelson is considered to be one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate and his staunch stance is making some wonder whether he is the lone Democrat standing in the way of health care victory.

Senate Democratic leaders are in a tough spot. They need 60 votes to avoid a Republican filibuster of their health care bill, but there is little political capital left to spare between courting Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who objects to a government-run insurance option and liberal Democrats, who want the opposite.

Nelson, however, is not a definite "no." In fact, he says, he "is open to looking at additional attempts to maintain the federal restriction on public funding of abortion."

But the question of whether his fellow party members will take the language as far as he wants is another issue. The current law restricts federal funding for abortion, but opponents argue that the new health care system contains loopholes that won't be able to stop federal dollars from going toward abortion services.

And it's not just abortion that the Nebraska native is taking issue with. In an interview with KLIN in Lincoln, Nebraska Thursday, Nelson said he has additional concerns about other proposals in the health care bill -- namely Medicare costs and new taxes and fees -- and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's deadline of Christmas was unattainable.

Lawmakers and the White House both have tried to woo Nelson, who has famously declared his vote is not for sale. He has met with President Obama three times in eight days, and has been scoffed at by some liberal groups for not siding with his caucus. Nelson, for his part, is standing by his arguments.

"I am not feeling any pressure from the party," he said. "I know what they would like me to do."

Sen. Casey's compromise included an increase in a tax credit for people who adopt a child, funding to help pregnant teens and others with alternatives to abortion and stronger language to protect health care providers who don't want to perform abortions. But it is unclear whether it went as far as the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House bill, which would not only cut federal funding for abortion-related services, but would also limit 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.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., rejected the Casey proposal as a "non-starter," and expressed confidence that his language will be included in the final bill. Stupak told ABC News he has been in touch with Sen. Nelson.

"They are holding tough and they are asking me, 'Is the House holding tough?'" Stupak said, referring to his Senate counterparts like Nelson and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who crafted the abortion amendment in the Senate health care bill. "Our members are holding, so we will not pass if they are putting anything but a version of our language."