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Abortion-rights advocates, who were outmaneuvered in the Houses health care reform vote, are banking on tougher Senate rules and targeted lobbying to keep restrictive abortion language out of that chambers bill.
Representatives from abortion-rights groups reacted furiously Monday to the last-minute decision over the weekend by the House to include language that bars publicly subsidized health care plans from offering elective abortions, even if they only use private money to pay for the procedure.
Were hoping that cooler heads will prevail, said Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood Federation of Americas vice president for public policy.
She said abortion-rights advocates may have an advantage in the Senate because any amendments will likely require 60 votes to be approved. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) incorporates language included in Senate committee versions that abortion-rights groups accept, then opponents would have a difficult time mustering opposition to defeat it. But it is not clear what language regarding abortion Reid will include in the Senate bill.
Rubiner conceded her side was caught off guard by the House action and faced formidable opposition particularly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Representatives from the Catholic group met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) late last week.
Theres nothing like a bunch of Catholic bishops coming up and intimidating people at the 11th hour, Rubiner said, adding that the bishops No. 1 issue is banning abortion for middle-class women.
An official with the bishops took issue with the contention that the lobbying had been intimidating and last-minute.
Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the conference, said her group had been involved in health care for decades.
Furthermore, she said, the bishops and conference staff have as much right to have conversations with Congressmen and their staff as anyone else.
Saile said the bishops still have problems with the health care bills passed out of the Senate Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Church officials have made it clear to Congress for months that they could not support health care legislation unless Members included restrictive abortion language.
In an Oct. 8 letter to the Senate, Catholic officials urged lawmakers to exclude mandated coverage for abortion and incorporate longstanding policies against abortion funding.
If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously, the letter said. The Catholic Church has also sought to muster grass-roots opposition by encouraging parishes around the country to distribute fliers and e-mails opposing proposed Congressional provisions on abortion.
While the Catholic Church has clashed with liberals on abortion, it has been supportive in general of health care reform and has urged that any measure also ensure that health coverage be accessible and affordable for legal immigrants and poor people.
Saile said the church also wants to ensure that illegal immigrants can still buy private insurance with their own funds.
Both sides in the abortion debate are now focusing on a number of Senators who could tip the vote their way.
Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, estimated that there are 41 Senators who are strong abortion-rights advocates and another 40 that oppose abortion rights.
That leaves 19 Members, whom she called mixed-choice folks, who will be up for grabs in the upcoming debate.