Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Abortion Issue Threatens Health-Care Overhaul Plan

Source: Bloomberg

By Kristin Jensen and Laura Litvan

November 12, 2009

Democrats are hardening their stances on both sides of the abortion issue in a battle that may threaten plans to overhaul the U.S. health-care system.

More than 40 party lawmakers vowed to vote against a final bill if it contains language the House agreed to on Nov. 7 adding restrictions on the procedure as part of broader health legislation. The issue may also disrupt work in the Senate, which has yet to unveil a bill.

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.”

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.

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.

Nelson Stand

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

At stake is a plan by lawmakers to cover tens of millions of uninsured 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, Majority Leader Harry 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.

The negotiators may go back to a compromise that dissolved in the House the night before the vote. Stupak told reporters he had a deal with Pelosi and Catholic bishops that would have included less-restrictive language and fell apart because “some groups overreached and can’t count” votes.

Stupak said the final amendment was stronger because it has permanent restrictions on abortion funding for any policies sold on the exchange. The compromise would only have applied permanently to a government-run insurance program and subjected other restrictions to a year-to-year review, he said.

“We were trying to find a common ground with those who would describe themselves as pro-life,” Pelosi said at a news conference in Seattle yesterday. “We can’t stop trying to find common ground.”

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