- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Tuesday rejected an effort by abortion opponents to tighten restrictions in the health care overhaul bill on taxpayer dollars for the procedure, but it was unlikely to be the last word on the divisive issue.

By a vote of 54-45, the Senate sidetracked an amendment by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah that would ban any insurance plan getting taxpayer dollars from offering abortion coverage. The restrictions mirrored provisions in the House-passed health care bill.

The Senate bill currently allows insurance plans to cover abortions, but requires that they can only be paid for with private money. The legislation calls for insurance plans that would receive federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace to strictly separate public funds from private dollars that would be used to pay for abortion.

“As our bill currently reads, no insurance plan in the new marketplace, whether private or public, would be allowed to use public funds for abortion,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The Senate vote — hailed as a victory by abortion rights supporters — could complicate prospects for President Barack Obama’s health overhaul.

It’s unclear whether Reid can pass his bill without the votes of Democratic abortion opponents. Seven Democrats supported the stiffer restrictions, while two Republicans — Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe— voted with the Democrats. In the House, anti-abortion Democrats have threatened to vote against any final bill that dilutes the restrictions already approved in their bill.

Abortion opponents say the restrictions simply extend current federal laws that prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But abortion rights supporters said the restrictions would have the effect of denying women coverage for a legal medical procedure already covered by many insurance plans, even if they use their own money.

“This amendment would place an unprecedented restriction on a woman’s right to use her own money to purchase insurance coverage that includes abortion,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

But Nelson called the separation of funds in the bill an accounting gimmick. “The reality is federal funds would help buy coverage that includes abortion,” he said.

The vote came as Senate Democrats remained at odds on the issue of creating a new government insurance plan — with time running out to pass Obama’s health care remake by Christmas.

Moderates cheered a move away from the so-called public option and liberals demanded an expansion of the federal Medicare program in exchange. The public plan is now in the bill, but supporters acknowledged Tuesday that it may not have the votes to pass.

“My worry is the public option is disappearing, or it gets very much weakened,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, representing liberals in the negotiations.

In exchange for giving up on a new government plan, liberals are demanding a major expansion of Medicare and additional aid for low-income uninsured. Medicare would be opened up — at least for a few years — to uninsured people age 55 to 64. A bid to expand the Medicaid program for low-income people failed to win support.

“That’s an example of not getting what you want,” Rockefeller said. Other alternatives to help low-income Americans are still on the table.

Democratic negotiators — five liberals and five moderates — are under pressure to reach at least a tentative deal by Tuesday. The bill now includes a government-run plan that states can opt out of, unacceptable to moderates whose votes Reid needs to overcome Republican delaying tactics and move the bill to final passage.

Moderates welcome the idea of replacing a new government plan with private insurance offered under the supervision of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal employee health benefits system, but questioned expanding Medicare, and they flat-out objected to broadening Medicaid.

Snowe — one Republican who may vote for the Democrats’ bill — also raised a warning flag. “I’m not sure ultimately what is the purpose” in expanding Medicare coverage, she said. The American Hospital Association, which supports the broad goals of the legislation, sent an alert to its members urging them to contact lawmakers in opposition to the Medicare expansion. Medicare pays hospitals less than it costs them to provide service, the group said.

The latest public plan idea bears little resemblance to the original proposed by liberals, and embraced by Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign. That called for the government to sell insurance to workers and their families in competition with industry giants like UnitedHealthcare.


Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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