Down to the Wire, House Leaders Eye Abortion Compromise

Posted March 20, 2010 at 9:13am

House leaders are considering allowing Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) another vote on his strict anti-abortion amendment to the health care reform package after failing, so far, to find enough votes to offset the loss of his bloc of supporters.

Despite seven Democrats switching from “no” votes on the original House bill to “yes,” Democratic leaders still remain short of the 216 votes they need to pass the bill.

They also do not yet have the votes to block a possible Republican motion-to-recommit on Stupak’s anti-abortion language.

That has Democratic leaders considering a complicated procedure that would give Stupak a vote on his language but likely result in the Senate’s less stringent abortion language still becoming law.

Stupak proposed a resolution Friday that would attempt to amend the Senate bill by directing the enrolling clerk to make corrections before the bill is sent to the president’s desk. Democrats were considering allowing Stupak’s resolution to come to a vote after passage of the Senate bill and the reconciliation “fixes” bill. It would presumably pass, as his amendment did in November.

Before the bill could be enrolled, however, a Senator would object to the correction, and the Stupak language would be referred to a Senate committee, Democratic sources explained.

The Senate bill, minus the Stupak language, would then head to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The maneuver would give abortion-rights opponents in the House a vote on their preferred language and the cover of a quiet death in the Senate. And abortion-rights supporters could rest assured the less-stringent Senate language would make it into law.

Aides said Democratic leaders were also considering bypassing a legislative fix for abortion-rights opponents, with the pledge that the president would address some of their concerns later through an executive order.

If a deal can be worked out with Stupak, Democrats appear to easily have the votes for the health care overhaul, provided that they don’t lose votes from abortion-rights supporters upset over allowing him a vote on the floor.

A group of 40 Democrats has vowed to oppose any legislation that contains Stupak-like language prohibiting insurance plans from covering abortions for women benefiting from federal subsidies.

But under the maneuver, they would not necessarily have to do so, because the Stupak language would be voted on after the larger reform legislation. They would still have to be on board, however, for the all-important vote on the rule governing debate. On Friday, House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the co-chairwomen of the Pro-Choice Caucus, were adamant that there would be no separate vote on abortion.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discussed the issue in a lengthy meeting Friday evening with abortion-rights supporters, who continue to hunt desperately for more votes.

For months, DeGette, who is also a Chief Deputy Whip, has insisted that the votes would be there to pass a final health care overhaul without appeasing Stupak.

She figured that there were a host of “no” votes on the original House bill who wanted to vote for a final bill, and that some of Stupak’s claimed dozen backers would end up peeling off and voting for the legislation in the end. Both dynamics have been in play.

Leaders have peeled off some of the party’s strongest abortion-rights opponents, including Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), who trained for six years to become a priest, and Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who is running for Senate. They have said they believe the Senate’s abortion language effectively prohibits federal funding for the procedure.

But the defections of such Members as Reps. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a former union president, from “yes” to “no,” and the loss of key targets such as Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), has thrown a wrench into DeGette’s calculations.Without a deal, Democratic leaders would either have to peel off more Members of Stupak’s coalition or find more flippers from a rapidly shrinking list of undecided Members.

And that’s assuming that they can resolve other concerns that have popped up in the past few days, including a major bicameral scrum over regional disparities in Medicare payments that Pelosi was working hard to resolve late Friday.

Among the co-sponsors of Stupak’s resolution were Reps. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and freshman Reps. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) and Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.), the only Republican to back the House’s health care bill.

Two other co-signers, Ellsworth and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), have declared their support for the health care overhaul even if no changes are made.

Stupak is scheduled to hold a press conference this morning, and the Rules Committee is also considering the legislation, with a hearing that will be broadcast by C-SPAN.