Senate Democrats backing down on tough anti-abortion measure

Two moderate Senate Democrats are signaling that they will not support the stringent anti-abortion measures that made it into the House healthcare reform bill as the so-called Stupak amendment.

Harry Hamburg/AP/File
Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 3, prior to attending the weekly caucus luncheons.
Matt Rourke/AP/File
Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania chairs a congressional hearing on college affordability at Temple University in Philadelphia, Oct. 5.

The Senate Democrats’ two leading foes of abortion have backed away from supporting the strict anti-abortion measure approved in the House version of healthcare reform.

Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania were originally expected to back inclusion of the House’s so-called Stupak amendment in the Senate version of the bill. But statements from both senators indicate that they are retreating to language that is less restrictive.

The Senate version of the bill, including whatever it might say about abortion, remains under wraps. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada is set to unveil the Senate bill, and its Congressional Budget Office price tag, at a Democratic caucus meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern time.

But the jockeying over abortion is intense all the same. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, a longtime foe of abortion in the Senate, has said he will introduce an amendment to the Senate bill similar to the one the House approved. That amendment, authored by Reps. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan and Joe Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania, would do three things:

• Bar women who receive a federal subsidy for health coverage from purchasing a plan that covers abortion.

• Ban abortion coverage in any new government-run health plan, known as the “public option.”

• Effectively keep abortion coverage out of any of the plans offered in a new insurance marketplace, or “exchange.”

Both Senators Nelson and Casey initially spoke positively about the Stupak amendment, but they are now inclined to be less restrictive.

On Tuesday, CNN reported that “now Nelson says he would be satisfied with the less restrictive language approved by the Senate Finance Committee.”

That language would require insurers to keep federal subsidies separate from funds used to pay for abortions, a reflection of present-day rules. Current federal law dates back to 1976 with the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother.

Last week, Casey’s office put out a statement indicating support for a level of restriction equal to the Hyde amendment: “Senator Casey thinks that health care reform should not be used to change longstanding policies regarding federal financing of abortion which [have] been in place since 1976.”

After the passage of the Stupak amendment in the House, which paved the way for narrow House approval of healthcare reform, abortion-rights forces mobilized and have made clear that they will fight a reform that ends up taking away reproductive choice. These forces form a critical element of the Democratic base, an element that Obama can ill afford to alienate.

What winds up in the final version of legislation is still up in the air, but if both the House and Senate versions contain Stupak restrictions, they will be difficult to remove in the House-Senate conference.


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