- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Senate could vote as soon as Tuesday on a controversial abortion amendment that, pass or fail, could trip up health care overhaul legislation down the road.

The proposal from Sens. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, and Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, would limit insurance plans funded with tax subsidies from providing coverage for abortions with exceptions for the life of the mother or cases of rape or incest.

Lawmakers who oppose abortion rights say the amendment, very similar to a provision inserted into the House’s health reform bill, is merely a continuation of existing law, which prohibits taxpayer funding of elective abortions. But lawmakers who are pro-choice call it a new restriction on the procedure, reigniting a controversy that has been brewing for decades.

It’s one of many significant amendments to the health care overhaul bill that is likely to face votes this week as Democrats near their Christmas deadline to pass the legislation. In addition, Democrats are still trying to come to agreement among the most liberal and conservative ends of their caucus on how to structure their public insurance plan.

Discussions continued Monday on the broad outlines of a compromise, a patchwork of ideas that includes an opportunity for people ages 55 to 64 to “buy-in” to the Medicare program and authorizing the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that runs the insurance program for federal employees, to run a nonprofit insurance program.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the Finance Committee, said the idea is “getting traction.”

“It’s a good first step,” he said.

As those discussions continue Tuesday in a back Senate room, the floor debate is going to be about the abortion amendment, which would prohibit any health insurance plan that gets federal funding from covering abortions, with exceptions. It would likely apply to many insurers because poor and middle-class Americans would qualify for federal tax credits to help them purchase coverage.

In addition, the public insurance plan would be barred from covering the procedure.

Without the amendment, Mr. Nelson said he won’t vote for the bill. That would mean Democratic leaders would have to find at least one Republican to support the legislation to reach 60 votes.

“As written, the Senate health care bill allows taxpayer dollars, directly and indirectly, to pay for insurance plans that cover abortion,” Mr. Nelson said. “Most Nebraskans, and Americans, do not favor using public funds to cover abortion and as a result this bill shouldn’t open the door to do so.”

The amendment is likely to fail in the Senate, where pro-choice supporters outnumber opponents, but the issue is likely to rear its head again.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said Democrats are merely using the amendment to provide “cover” for when Democratic leaders eventually put the language into the bill in the form of a final “manager’s amendment.”

“My suspicion is when we see a manager’s amendment, the Stupak language is going to be in there,” Mr. Coburn said, referring to the sponsor of the House amendment. “They’re going to allow a cover vote … so everybody can state their positions.”

The issue is going to have to be addressed when the Senate and House bills are merged.

A provision similar to the Nelson amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak was added to the House bill in a last-minute deal meant to save health reform and with the understanding that pro-choice supporters would work to get the language removed later.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and pro-choice supporter, allowed the amendment to come up for a vote because a group of pro-life Democrats threatened to kill the legislation, otherwise.

Democrats who support abortion rights promised to work to get the language removed and a group of more than 40 said they would vote down the legislation.

Many Senate Democrats said Monday that they would oppose the amendment as well.

“It goes farther than Hyde,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. If a woman wants abortion coverage she’d have to buy an insurance “rider” in advance, an idea that “demonizes women. Why don’t you go into the workplace and paint a scarlet letter?”

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