Nelson amendment fails, but healthcare abortion battle isn't over

The Senate defeated the anti-abortion Nelson amendment Tuesday. But President Obama has not made abortion rights a priority in healthcare reform, so the issue remains in play.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) talks to reporters about healthcare legislation outside of the senate Democrats' weekly policy lunch at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday.

The Senate voted Tuesday to reject the strict antiabortion Nelson amendment to healthcare reform, but the abortion issue is still very much a factor as Democratic leaders seek to pass reform by Christmas.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the lead Democrat backing the abortion restrictions, has said that he would oppose healthcare reform legislation that does not ban abortion coverage for women who receive federal subsidies to purchase private insurance. The amendment, which duplicated a provision by Reps. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan and Joseph Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania that passed in the House version of reform, also would have barred abortion coverage in any government-run health plan.

The Nelson amendment was defeated 54 to 45.

Democrats' options

In order for Senate Democrats to overcome a filibuster on the final reform bill, they need all 60 members of their caucus – including Senator Nelson – to vote "yes." If the caucus loses Nelson, Democrats will have to find a Republican to join them (perhaps one of Maine’s pro-abortion-rights moderates), which is no small task. They would then have to work out a compromise on abortion with the House in conference.

But it’s also possible that Nelson could sign on to a compromise over abortion. Earlier on Tuesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid told reporters that he would work with Nelson on language the Nebraskan would find acceptable.

Either way, abortion-rights supporters face an uphill battle in defending what remains in the Senate version: a provision that allows women to purchase a plan with abortion coverage in a new marketplace, as long as private funds are used for that coverage. Abortion opponents call that an accounting gimmick. Supporters say that technique mirrors the current standard, as enshrined in the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding of abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the life of the woman.

Abortion-rights supporters believe that the House language already represents a compromise, and they will be upset by any final version that is more restrictive toward abortion. They fought the Nelson amendment and won. But that could be a temporary victory. If there’s one thing supporters of abortion rights already know, it’s that President Obama is not going to go to the mat for them in the battle for healthcare reform.

Obama's position

All along, in his public statements – and in the private statements that are publicly known, such as his remarks to the Senate Democratic caucus last Sunday – the president has spoken of the broad principles he wants the reform to contain, such as expanding coverage and cost-containment. But he has not drawn any lines in the sand over specifics, such as a government-run health insurance plan (the “public option”) or abortion rights.

Last month, in an interview with ABC, Obama said of the strict antiabortion language in the House bill: “There needs to be more work before we get to the point where we’re not changing the status quo.”

But he has also made clear, in private comments to Democrats reported in the press, that he wants them to work out the details amongst themselves.

On Tuesday evening, abortion-rights advocates enjoyed a moment of victory as the Nelson amendment went down. But they know they have work to do.

“We had an important win today, but the fight is far from over,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement. “We will mobilize our activists and work with our allies in Congress to stop additional attacks in the Senate and work to ensure that the final health bill does not include the dangerous and divisive Stupak-Pitts language that’s currently in the House bill.”

See also:

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

Healthcare holdouts: Ben Nelson says abortion funds mean ‘no’ vote

Top four differences of Senate and House healthcare reforms bills


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