Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Reid Expects to Bring Health Bill to Floor Next Week

Source: Bloomberg

By James Rowley and Kristin Jensen

November 12, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects to bring legislation to overhaul the U.S. health-care system up for debate next week.

Reid told reporters today at the Capitol he believes the Senate can pass the measure by the end of the year. Asked whether he had the 60 votes needed to begin debate, he said, “I hope so.”

Reid is trying to bridge differences in his chamber over whether the plan should include a new government-run insurance program, whether it should require employers to cover workers and how to pay for covering tens of millions of uninsured Americans. He’s also wading through contentious areas such as federal funding for abortion.

Abortion “is going to be a major issue,” Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters yesterday. “I hope we can find a way around it.”

Senators on both sides of the abortion issue warned that it could disrupt work in their chamber. In the House, more than 40 party lawmakers yesterday vowed to vote against a final bill if it contains language the chamber agreed to on Nov. 7 adding restrictions on the procedure as part of broader legislation.

There’s little margin for error. Democrats control 60 votes in the Senate, just enough to pass legislation if they stick together. House Democrats have 258 votes and need 218 for passage. The amendment restricting abortion got 64 Democratic votes and the support of the lone Republican who voted for the overall bill, Louisiana Representative Ahn “Joseph” Cao.

Obama’s Take

The health-care legislation is President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority and he’s pushing Congress to get it done this year. In an interview with ABC News yesterday, Obama said there’s “more work” to be done to make sure the legislation doesn’t change the status quo on abortion funding.

“This is a health-care bill, not an abortion bill,” Obama said.

Asked about abortion restrictions, Reid said today the legislation he proposes will “ensure that no federal funds are used for abortion.” He said he’ll “continue to work with pro- choice folks and pro-life folks in the Senate to come up with something that is fair and reasonable” to maintain the legal status quo on abortion.

Nelson’s Warning

Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, told reporters he may not even vote to allow debate to proceed unless the abortion dilemma is addressed. He said he would like even tougher restrictions than the House included.

“If it isn’t clear that government money is not to be used to fund abortions, I won’t vote for it,” Nelson said yesterday.

At stake is a plan by lawmakers to expand health-insurance coverage to millions of Americans while curbing medical costs. Their proposals for new purchasing exchanges, subsidies and a requirement that all Americans have insurance would cost more than $800 billion over 10 years and represent the biggest changes to U.S. health care in four decades.

Former President Bill Clinton will seek to rally Senate Democrats on health care today. Clinton, a Democrat, will speak at the party’s weekly policy luncheon to rally support for the effort, according to two people familiar with the schedule.

Stupak Amendment

Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, initiated the House abortion amendment, saying he wanted to ensure that federal dollars didn’t support the procedure. The result, abortion rights activists say, is an unprecedented restriction because insurers might not cover abortions for women using the exchanges even if they tap their own money to buy a plan.

More than 85 percent of private plans cover abortions, according to Naral Pro-Choice America, which called the House provision an “outrageous blow to women’s freedom and privacy.”

The group got support from Democrats who signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released yesterday by Representatives Louise Slaughter of New York and Diana DeGette of Colorado.

“We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women’s right to choose any further than current law,” the group of more than 40 lawmakers said, referring to the eventual House-Senate compromise legislation.

Senate Work

In the Senate, Reid is waiting for Congressional Budget Office cost estimates before unveiling his health-care bill and pushing to begin debate.

Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said no one has found the “right formula” on abortion that would be acceptable in both chambers.

“We have to be able to assure people that taxpayer funds won’t be used,” Conrad said.

Other senators said they aren’t looking for big changes.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, an abortion-rights supporter and one of the few Republicans who might back health legislation, said she believes the plan that came out of the Senate Finance Committee “did a good job putting up a firewall that would prevent federal funds from going to abortions.”

The committee’s bill prohibits abortion services from being required as part of a minimum benefits package offered through the exchange. It also segregates public subsidy funds from private premium payments for insurance plans that provide abortion services.

Keeping Current Law

Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said abortion is such a contentious topic that he and many other senators believe the best solution is to simply preserve current law.

“I would certainly prefer a bill that does not have the Stupak amendment,” Cardin told reporters today.

Senator Ted KAUFMAN, a Delaware Democrat, said a lot of lawmakers, including himself, wouldn’t be inclined to vote down the overall bill over a single provision. Health reform needs to pass, or the opportunity could evaporate, he said.

“We’re not going to revisit this again,” he said.

The issue will play a role in the House-Senate negotiations that would follow a Senate vote. Lawmakers from each chamber would reconcile their plans and then vote again.

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