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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.
Another senior Democratic aide isnt taking the threat very seriously, either. We all know that no one single issue is going to take it down. If a bill emerges from conference that lowers costs, brings down the deficit and expands coverage, Democrats are not going to bring it down over one single issue, the aide said.
The elusive ideal would be to find a true compromise on the abortion language something Obama clearly desires but the two sides are pretty far apart. The architect of the anti-abortion hard line, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and his coalition and the Catholic Bishops have been adamant that the language stay put, while pro-abortion-rights Democrats have insisted that women who receive federal subsidies should be able to choose plans that cover the procedure provided that their premiums, not the subsidy, pay for it.
Stupak said the abortion-rights supporters had overreached when they rejected a compromise he reached with Pelosi on the eve of the Saturday vote. That deal would have included a permanent ban on abortion funding by the public insurance option but an annual ban that would have to be renewed on private plans covering abortions.
From our perspective, the fact [Pelosi] couldnt find common ground actually helped us out, Stupak said. We got more than we thought we could.
With focus now swinging to the Senate, top aides in that chamber said they expect abortion-rights defenders to have an easier time knocking down a provision as tough as the one that emerged from the House.
The fact that it turned into such a high-profile issue over the weekend practically ensures that someone will take up the cause over here, said one senior Senate Democratic aide. However, the aide said any anti-abortion amendment, whether offered by one the Senates handful of anti-abortion-rights Democrats or by a Republican, would likely have to overcome a filibuster attempt by liberals. That means any amendment would need 60 votes, a steep climb for abortion foes.
However, several Senators weighed in Monday saying the issue needs more work, and Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is against abortion rights, has not tipped his hand yet on exactly what language he will include in the bill he is bringing to the floor.
Sen Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) warned Monday evening that he would vote against a motion to proceed on any health care bill that does not include language barring federal funds from being used to provide insurance coverage for abortions. Nelson said he needs language in the final Senate bill to be similar to the Stupak language.
I feel that something like the Stupak amendment should be included in the Senate version. I dont know that its not because I havent seen the Senate version, Nelson told reporters, adding that inclusion of such language does not guarantee his support given other issues he may have with the legislation.
Senate Democratic aides, however, noted that the abortion issue is unlikely to become as controversial in the Senate as it was in the House.
This has been a long-simmering fight in the House, said another senior Senate Democratic aide. You dont have the same dynamic over here. There are more moderate Members who are looking at this in a practical way.
Aides added that they dont yet foresee the issue becoming a sticking point for either pro- or anti-abortion-rights Democrats or an impediment to gathering 60 votes for the final bill. The public insurance option continues to be the top concern of Democrats in the Senate, aides said.
Emily Pierce and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.