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.

Stephan Savoia/AP
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.

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

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.”

Coakley vs. Capuano

Mr. Capuano is Coakley’s closest rival. He trials her by 15 percentage points with 10 percent of voters still undecided, according to the most recent poll of likely Democratic voters, conducted by Rasmussen Reports on Nov. 23.

Capuano, after initially criticizing Coakley for vowing to vote against the bill if it contained abortion restrictions, has since reversed his position to one that closely mirrors his rival’s.

“I firmly believe there will be a bill we can vote for,” he told the Monitor at a campaign event Thursday. “You force the issue, and you stand your principles. You don’t cave in. That’s exactly how we got a strong public option in the House and how we’ll get the abortion issue out and how we will keep a strong public option.”

If the bill contains restrictions on funding for abortions or lacks a public option, “it’s not healthcare reform,” he said.

Capuano voted against the Stupak amendment in the House, but ultimately voted for the final version of the House bill, despite its inclusion of the Stupak amendment.

Even if an abortion amendment was included in the final bill, both top Democratic candidates would probably vote for it – regardless of their current stand, says Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

“There would be enormous pressure form the White House,” he says.

The other challengers

The two other Democratic candidates, Alan Khazei, cofounder of City Year, a nationwide community service program for young adults, and Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, have both stated they would support a healthcare reform bill regardless of the abortion issue.

The general election will be held Jan. 19, and while “there are two respectable Republican challengers,… they’re an afterthought,” says Professor Ansolabehere. “There aren’t that many states where the Republican Party is in quite the state of disarray as in Massachusetts, where really the primary election is the election.”

See also:

Obama’s Senate visit moves Dems closer to healthcare reform deal


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