Abortion-rights supporters in the House were scrambling Monday to regain their footing in the wake of their crushing defeat on a measure that tacked tough restrictions to the procedure onto a massive health care overhaul.
But they got a critical boost when President Barack Obama told ABC News on Monday night that he wanted to change the language in the final House bill so that neither side feels that its being betrayed. The House package, approved narrowly Saturday night, provides that no federal support be allowed for insurance policies that cover abortion. Obama said the bill cannot change the status quo, which bans federal funding of abortions.
I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that were not restricting womens insurance choices, he said.
While Obamas statement served to buoy efforts by Democratic leaders of the House abortion-rights bloc who threatened to withhold their support from the final package over the issue, their capitulation on House passage raised questions about their ability to hold the line.
A lot of people make threats. Very few carry through with them, one senior Democratic aide said. The House has spoken. This is the House position.
Sixty-four House Democrats joined Republicans on Saturday night to add language to the health care reform bill that limits abortion coverage by prohibiting federal subsidies from going to any plan that offers the procedure. To get coverage under the House-passed version, women who get subsidies would have to buy special riders, a move abortion-rights supporters called highly unlikely for most.
Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chairwoman of the 190-Member Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, on Monday gathered at least 40 signatures for letters to Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spelling out their dismay. Health care reform must not be misused as an opportunity to restrict womens access to reproductive health services, the missives read. They vowed to Pelosi to oppose a final package that included the language and asked for a meeting next week with Obama on the issue. Both DeGette and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the other co-chairwoman of the group, were in touch with Pelosi on the issue Monday, aides said.
And abortion-rights Democrats hit the cable circuit to make their case, with DeGette telling MSNBC that her group would not support a devils bargain to support the language in a final package, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a chief deputy whip, told the same network earlier that she is confident the provision will get stripped.
But the flurry of letter-writing and threats to bring down the bill over the abortion issue mirrored an earlier battle over the public insurance option. And in that debate, liberals vowed to vote down any version of the plan not based on Medicare rates only to later vote en masse for a weaker version. Given that the Pro-Choice Caucus held its collective nose and lined up behind the bill during the weekend vote, the question is whether they will cave, just like the Congressional Progressive Caucus did on the Medicare-based public option.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.