Ben Nelson: Senate bill's abortion provisions not good enough

The language in the Senate healthcare reform bill designed to bar federal funds from paying for abortions is not good enough, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) modified the healthcare bills approved by two committees in order to address concerns from anti-abortion-rights senators that the bill would change current laws prohibiting taxpayer money from being spent on abortion while not alienating abortion-rights supporters.

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Reid did not succeed, according to Nelson, a key centrist swing vote Reid needs to advance his healthcare bill at a crucial test vote set for Saturday.

"We have looked at the language," Nelson told The Hill. "That language is not language that I would prefer."

"I think you need to have it eminently clear that no dollars that are federal tax dollars, directly or indirectly, are used to pay for abortions and it needs to be totally clear. [It’s] not clear enough, I don’t think," Nelson said.

Nelson, who also opposes the creation of a government-run public option insurance plan, pointedly remarked that program is a significant reason for his rejection of Reid's abortion provisions. "If there’s no public option, perhaps some of the problem goes away," Nelson said.

Reid, an abortion-rights opponent himself, indicated Thursday that he was not inclined to make major changes to the abortion provisions in his bill. "This is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill," he said.

The House adopted strict language, authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), forbidding insurance plans operating in the healthcare reform bill's exchange from covering abortion services without a supplementary rider customers would pay for separately. Sixty-four Democrats joined Republicans in passing the Stupak amendment before the House passed its healthcare bill, provoking the ire of abortion rights supporters in the House and Senate, who vowed to ensure the Stupak language does not end up in any bill signed by President Barack Obama. Obama also strongly hinted the House bill goes too far.

Nelson said that he and other anti-abortion-rights Democrats were looking into ways to address their concerns but did not endorse the Stupak approach. "We’re trying to look through all of it and then we’ll go back and look at what might be possible. We talked to some others, as well. I’m not the only person who has an interest in this language," he said.

Republicans who oppose abortion rights also have an obligation to offer solutions, not just criticisms, of the relevant language in Reid's healthcare bill, Nelson said.

"The folks on the other side of the aisle who seem to have an interest in the language, you know, maybe they ought to be coming forward with some amendment, as well," Nelson said.

Nelson is not alone in his criticism of the Senate language on abortion. The National Right to Life Committee issued a statement Wednesday night describing it as "completely unacceptable."

By contrast, supporters of abortion rights have praised Reid's approach. "I am pleased that the Senate has adopted a reasonable, common ground approach on this difficult question," said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), the author of the original House abortion provisions. "It ensures that federal funds do not pay for abortions but allows continued access to this legal medical procedure."

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