Healthcare holdouts: Ben Nelson says abortion funds mean 'no' vote

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska says he will vote down the healthcare bill if it does not outlaw use of federal dollars for abortion services. He also wants to rein in the scope of a public option.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Senator Ben Nelson speaks before the Senate voted to begin debate on legislation for a broad healthcare overhaul at Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 21.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a two-term Democrat in a big red state, likes brokering agreements across party lines in the Senate almost as much as following the Nebraska Cornhuskers on game day in Lincoln.

A founding member of the bipartisan Gang of 14, Senator Nelson helped end a bitter deadlock over judicial nominations in 2005. He teamed up with GOP moderates to rein in the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and the Obama stimulus plan in 2009, citing as a reason the need for fiscal restraint.

But in the healthcare debate, he’s more known for saying no: No to a public option that could undermine private insurers. (Nelson is a former insurance commissioner in Nebraska.) No to language that could allow federal funding to be used to pay for abortions. No to pressure to a rush to a party-line vote.

In explaining his reluctance last week to commit to a vote to bring the bill to the Senate floor, Nelson drafted a football metaphor. “But before I say yes or no on that motion to proceed, I believe Nebraskans want me to have adequate time to read the bill and to study its costs,” he said in a Web post to his constituents. “To do otherwise would be like deciding before the opening kickoff of a football game to punt on first down. Once I have the ball – or the bill – and can assess the situation, I’ll be ready to call a play."

In the Nov. 21 vote, Nelson took a deep breath and voted yes. But he added that he would vote down the bill for final passage if it did not include some fixes, such as language outlawing any use of federal dollars to fund abortion services, directly or indirectly.

“But I won't slam the doors of the Senate in the face of Nebraskans now. They want the health care system fixed. The Senate owes them a full and open debate to try to do so,” he said in a posting to constituents after the vote.

Pressed on what it would take to get to yes, Nelson told reporters last week that he’s looking for “something that makes clear that the Hyde Amendment applies, so that you don’t have federal funds subsidizing premiums or in any way that would relate to abortions.”

The antiabortion faction within the Democratic Party is expanding, as Democrats reach deeper into conservative districts to expand their majority. But so far, Nelson is the only antiabortion Democrat to threaten to vote down the healthcare package over the issue. Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, another antiabortion Democrat, says he still expects that a compromise over the issue is possible.

Nelson and other moderates also want to rein in the scope of a public option in the plan to ensure it does not drive out private insurance plans.

Nelson won’t face Nebraska voters again until 2012. But you wouldn’t know that from the volleys of campaign-style ads targeting Nebraska and other states that are represented by lawmakers on the fence on healthcare reform. This week, Employers for a Healthy Economy launched a multimillion ad campaign urging senators in Nebraska and eight other states to vote down a bill that would add to healthcare costs while families are struggling and “our future slips deeper into debt.”

See also in this series:

Mary Landrieu likes her $300 million

Blanche Lincoln wants to focus on jobs


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