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Abortion Vexes Leaders Seeking Reform Deal

With the politics of abortion continuing to threaten passage of their health care reform overhaul, House Democratic leaders are wrestling with what appear to be three routes for moving forward — and none is particularly easy.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) clearly would prefer to find the votes to pass the Senate’s less restrictive abortion language over the objections of the Catholic bishops, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and a clutch of House Democrats who oppose abortion rights.

But that will require Pelosi to offset the votes of Stupak and as many as 10 other Democrats he says stand with him on abortion by flipping other moderates from “no” to “yes” on the overall health care reform package.

Leadership aides are skeptical of Stupak’s count and believe they can hang on to about half the number that the Michigan Democrat says are in his corner.

And getting a handful of folks to switch from “no” to “yes” is certainly far easier to do than flipping a dozen.

But already some Democrats have started pushing to punt the abortion debate with promises that the issue will be subject to future floor votes.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has floated putting off the issue — although to date both sides of the debate have rejected the idea. Under Waxman’s idea, the Senate language would stand for now but be subject to future votes in the years before the insurance exchanges take effect.

The idea isn’t far off from a deal that Stupak and the bishops signed off on last year. Stupak said last year that they had an agreement with Pelosi to add a ban on private insurance offering abortion coverage that would be subject to an annual vote alongside a permanent ban on the public option offering such coverage. That deal was nixed by abortion-rights supporters who demanded a floor vote on Stupak’s restrictive language, and Stupak won easily.

With the public option off the table, an annual vote on abortion coverage by private insurance companies would seem consistent with the earlier deal, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

“If it was good for them then, why can’t it be good for them now?” asked a House leadership aide. “Don’t they want health care?”

A third route involves forcing new abortion language through the Senate, either on a reconciliation bill of fixes or on another bill, but that will require 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.

Republicans, hoping to sow doubts among House Democrats about reconciliation’s prospects for passing the Senate, threatened Tuesday to block any efforts to toughen up the Senate abortion language. Specifically, Republican Senators plan to raise a budget point of order, a procedural move objecting to the reconciliation process that requires 60 votes to defeat.

“If there is anyone left in the House who believes Senate Republicans will help carry their water on abortion or anything else so they can vote in favor of the health bill, they are radically misreading our Conference,” a senior Republican Senate aide said Tuesday. “Republicans intend to raise every point of order and will not waive a single one regardless of merit to assist Democrats in passing this $2.5 trillion health care boondoggle.”

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