An Obama administration effort to rein in states treading toward using new health care laws to fund abortions - and provide political cover for pro-life Democrats - reignited a politically explosive issue that Republicans and pro-life activists are eager to exploit in the lead-up to the fall midterm elections.
Seizing on a Health and Human Services Department announcement last week that states must comply with a White House executive order that prohibits most abortion coverage in government-backed insurance pools, anti-abortion groups and Republicans see more ammunition in their effort to rally pro-life voters to the polls.
"You cannot exchange 30 years of pro-life protections in the law for a piece of paper signed by the president of the United States," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, acknowledged that his side had won a round.
"If they now do what they say they are going to do, that would be good," Mr. Johnson said of the Obama administration. "But in our view, they are doing it because the spotlight has been put on them, and we blew the whistle."
The thorny abortion issue almost derailed President Obama's health care overhaul earlier this year, as many conservative House Democrats threatened to withhold support if the measure called for spending federal dollars on abortions.
In a deal to secure the support of anti-abortion Democrats, Mr. Obama signed an executive order that reaffirmed long-standing federal restrictions against spending money for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
But the issue flared as states began to write regulations for a newly created, federally funded "Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan," which will provide coverage for high-risk uninsured people who have been turned away by private insurers.
New Mexico's version of the plan initially called for coverage of elective abortion, causing outrage among Republicans. Abortion foes also raised questions about plans in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
So HHS last week issued a statement reiterating that all states must comply with the executive order, a move expected to shield anti-abortion Democrats who supported Mr. Obama's health care law from criticism that they misled the public.
"I'm sure that the motivation of the administration was to reassure the pro-life Democrats who voted for health care reform - and it may have been at the urging at some of those elected officials and/or candidates to do so," said Jessica Arons, director of the Women's Health and Rights Program with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
"A far as I can tell, it was purely a political calculation because, from my analysis, there is nothing under current federal law that requires the action that the administration took last week."
But abortion foes say they are unconvinced the administration will keep its promise and vow to keep the issue alive through the election season.
"We call on this administration, and we call on this Congress, to act immediately to add back pro-life protections of the law," Mr. Pence said. "I'm not persuaded that pronouncements by the administration or pronouncements by bureaucrats within the administration is protection from [state] law."
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and other Ohio Republicans on Monday sent a letter to Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland urging him not to include elective abortions as a covered benefit.
"Ohioans were misled by the Obama administration about the cost of the president's health care legislation, and they cannot be misled again when it comes to this unconscionable use of taxpayer dollars," the lawmakers wrote.
But Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a leading anti-abortion advocate among House Democrats, accused Republicans of shamefully using the situation as an excuse to spread "misinformation" about the administration's position.
Mr. Stupak added that the HHS statement should ease fears that the health care law would open a flood of federal funding for abortion.
"The president's executive order makes clear that federal funds may not be used for abortion under the Affordable Care Act - including the pre-existing condition insurance pools currently being implemented in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and other states across the country," he said.
The administration's action also stirred anger with abortion rights activists, who say the new rules go too far.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights group, called the Obama administration's exclusion of abortion coverage from newly created high-risk pools "wrongheaded and inexplicable."
"At a time when the country is on the cusp of implementing nationwide health-insurance coverage, it is unacceptable to treat abortion care differently in the new high-risk pools," she said.
Even if crucial midterm elections weren't looming in 3 1/2 months, the administration was smart to immediately respond to concerns that states might use federal dollars for abortions, some political analysts say.
"You don't want to have a pledge that you made very visibly being reneged upon," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. "And if it's being done by others, you want to put the kibosh on it as quickly as you can. So I wouldn't put it entirely through the prism of an election."
Mr. Ornstein added, however, that in an election cycle dominated by the sluggish economy and high unemployment, abortion will have little impact when voters go to the polls in November.
"This is not going to be the factor that determines these elections, even at the margins," he said. What will "is a combination of the pessimism that people are feeling about the state of the world."
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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