- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

Senate Democrats on Saturday appeared to have locked down the final support needed to pass President Obama’s chief legislative priority, a 10-year, $871 billion health care overhaul that would extend coverage to millions of Americans and reshape one-sixth of the economy.

Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, said he’s ready to provide the critical 60th vote needed to overcome a promised Republican filibuster. He negotiated new abortion restrictions and millions of dollars in federal assistance for Nebraska’s Medicaid program into the final package of amendments and warned that he won’t support the bill if it’s dramatically changed when merged with the House plan.

Right-to-life groups and Republicans accused Democrats of overturning the Hyde Amendment - a long-standing compromise that prevents federal funds from being used to pay for abortions - while abortion rights supporters said the bill encroaches on a woman’s right to choose. Assuming the Senate bill passes, the issue likely will remain at the center of debate as the House and Senate plans are merged into a final bill.

The new abortion language was part of a last-minute package of amendments filed Saturday morning by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who scheduled the first and most significant procedural vote on the legislation for about 1 a.m. Monday. If Democrats hold on to their 60 votes and succeed in cutting off debate at that time, they’ll be on track to vote on final passage on Christmas Eve.

When asked Saturday morning whether he now has 60 committed votes, Mr. Reid said only, “Seems that way.”

Republicans demanded Saturday that the 383-page final amendments package be read aloud on the Senate floor - exercising a rarely invoked right in hopes of delaying passage of what they see as a historic mistake that will increase insurance premiums and reduce Medicare coverage.

The reading was wrapped up by about 4 p.m., allowing Democrats to move forward as planned.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said lawmakers will be talking about health care “until Christmas,” signaling that Republicans will continue to try to stop the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would reduce the deficit by $132 billion over 10 years and extend coverage to about 94 percent of all Americans younger than 65 - up from 83 percent now.

“There’s still much work left to be done, but not a lot of time left to do it,” Mr. Obama said at the White House on Saturday. “But today is a major step forward for the American people. After a nearly century-long struggle, we are on the cusp of making health care reform a reality in the United States of America.”

The drama isn’t over.

The package of changes Mr. Reid introduced Saturday would require women who purchase insurance plans that cover abortions to pay for abortion coverage separately and completely out of pocket.

It also would allow states to “opt out” of abortion coverage. States could enact legislation to prohibit the insurance exchanges created by the bill from selling insurance that covers abortions. Each exchange would have to have one plan that doesn’t offer abortion coverage.

Mr. Nelson said the abortion language had been changed enough to meet his demand that the legislation not allow for taxpayer-funded coverage of the procedure.

“I know these limits on abortion are hard for some people to accept, and I respect those who disagree, but I would not have voted for this bill without them,” Mr. Nelson said.

Republicans said the abortion changes aren’t sufficient and represent a dramatic assault on the long-standing Hyde Amendment preventing federal funding of abortion. They also criticized the final amendments as mere sweeteners aimed at winning votes.

“This reprehensible and deceptive agreement is a historic and radical shift in policy that will require taxpayers to pay for abortion,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. He said negotiators “threw unborn babies under the bus.”

Mr. Nelson called the changes “very similar” to abortion restrictions added to the House’s bill shortly before it was passed. But the sponsor of the House amendment, Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, said the new Senate language is “not acceptable” because it still would allow the federal government to subsidize abortion coverage.

The House provisions raised the ire of abortion rights supporters, who promised to reverse the changes before the bill gets to the president’s desk. Mr. Nelson warned Saturday that he would rescind his support if the abortion language changes when the Senate and House plans are merged.

Abortion rights supporters also criticized the compromise.

Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women said the proposed compromise would impose so much administrative work that many insurers would not be likely to cover abortions.

“It is a sad day when women’s health is traded away for one vote,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“The Nelson language creates an unworkable system whereby individuals are required to write two separate checks each month, one for abortion care and one for everything else. There is no sound policy reason to require women to pay separately for their abortion coverage other than to try to shame them and draw attention to the abortion coverage.”

A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said the fact that neither side is completely satisfied with the plan is “a testament to the idea this is true compromise.”

The abortion language is one of the most significant changes in the package of amendments that Democrats added to the bill Saturday morning.

The bill also would fully cover the additional Medicaid costs Nebraska will face as that program is expanded. Medicaid in all states will be available to Americans who make 133 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 100 percent currently, but all other states will be required to fund at least some of those costs.

Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican, accused Democrats of buying votes for their health care bill.

“You’ve got to compliment Ben Nelson for playing ‘The Price is Right,’ ” he said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The bill also will include the establishment of state-based or multi-state plans that would be offered under contract with the Office of Personnel Management, which runs the health care plans for federal employees.

Other last-minute changes include additional small-business tax credits, higher penalties for those who choose not to get insurance and a higher payroll tax on high-income families. Insurance companies will be prohibited from denying children coverage because of pre-existing conditions immediately after Mr. Obama signs the bill.

To reduce the cost of the plan, a one-year “fix” to the reimbursement rate doctors receive for treating Medicare patients was removed from the bill. Mr. Reid said lawmakers would address the issue early next year. A tax on elective cosmetic surgery was removed from the bill and a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning treatments was added instead.

The legislative drama Saturday was underlined by Washington’s largest December snowfall on record, a storm that shut down airports and made most roads impassable. Lawmakers had to trek through only a few inches of snow to get to a 7 a.m. defense authorization vote, but had to deal with much larger amounts on the way home.

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