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Massachusetts' would-be senators roil healthcare abortion debate

The race to fill the US Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward Kennedy is complicating the healthcare reform debate. The top two contenders won't vote for a bill if it limits access to abortion.

By Tracey D. SamuelsonContributor / December 7, 2009

Massachusetts Attorney General and US Senate contender Martha Coakley appears Monday morning at Jimmy's Restaurant in Taunton Mass. Ms. Coakley has said that she will not vote for a healthcare reform bill that contains restrictions on abortion funding.

Stephan Savoia/AP

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Boston

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, Massachusetts should be a reliable “yes” vote on healthcare reform issues.

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But the Bay State could again be complicating issues for Senate leaders hoping to make their way to the crucial 60 votes needed to defeat a Republican filibuster on a healthcare bill.

Massachusetts holds its primary tomorrow for the special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Edward Kennedy. The two Democratic frontrunners have both expressed reservations about voting for healthcare reform if it significantly limits access to abortion.

That is possible. Monday, the Senate was considering an amendment by Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska that would prohibit private health plans that receive federal subsidies from covering abortions. Abortion-rights advocates say the amendment is too harsh.

The House passed a similar provision – the Stupak amendment – in November.

Mass. complications

This is the second time that the senate seat formerly held by Mr. Kennedy was been an issue in the national healthcare reform debate. When Kennedy passed away in August, Democrats were concerned that healthcare reform could come to a vote before the special election – depriving them of a vital vote in the Senate.

That hurdle was cleared when Massachusetts changed its election laws in September to allow an interim replacement.

Now, state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), the favorite in the five-month race, has insisted that she will not vote for a bill that contains restrictions on abortion funding. But she says she believes the Nelson amendment doesn’t have enough support to pass.

“I don’t believe there are enough votes in the Senate, regardless of what the talk is right now,” Ms. Coakley said Thursday. “It is been made clear by people in the House, and in the Senate, frankly – and even by the president – that that’s not going to be part of the debate, that it shouldn’t be part of this debate.”

Yet the staunch abortion-rights stance by Coakley and her top Democratic challenger, US Rep. Michael Capuano, is a part of that equation, says Dan Payne, a Massachusetts-based Democratic media consultant.

“This race has made Washington aware of the impact of that abortion amendment,” Mr. Payne says. “I think Martha will hold her ground. It will be hard for her to walk away from that.”