Nelson a 'no' on health reform bill pending further changes

Centrist Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) said Thursday he won't vote to advance the Senate healthcare bill unless it's changed.

Nelson said more stringent restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion must be included in the bill if it is to win his vote.

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"If it's not at the point where I think it needs to be with the improvements that I'm pushing — and they've made a lot of them — then I will not vote for cloture on the motion to end debate," Nelson said in an interview on KLIN radio in Nebraska. 

"There's a lot of improvement on the legislation but the basic question on funding for abortion hasn't been answered yet," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needs 60 votes to move forward, and has been struggling to bring together the 60 senators who caucus with Democrats.

Nelson said the bill is not yet at a point that he could support it, and that his concerns involve not only abortion, but also other key elements of the legislation.

"No," he said when asked if he'd vote for the bill at this point, even if his concerns on abortion were met.

Nelson offered an amendment this month that would have imposed stronger restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion services. But it failed on the Senate floor last week.

The House healthcare bill includes a provision backed by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that imposes tougher abortion language.

On Thursday, Nelson rejected a new compromise crafted by fellow Democrat and abortion-rights opponent Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.). Anti-abortion-rights groups have also come out against the Casey language, which has not been publicly released.

Nelson's is also concerned about the level of new spending in the bill, particularly the financial burden it could place on state Medicaid budgets, as well as the taxes included to finance it. The spending provisions could create an "underfunded federal mandate for the state of Nebraska," Nelson said.

"If you're going to extend coverage then obviously there has to be a way to raise the money. The way in which money is raised is not acceptable," he said. "So if there isn't a way to raise the money in tight times, I think you have to look at a scaled-back version."

Nelson isn't Reid's only problem. Several liberal senators are also withholding their support because Reid cut a proposal to create a government-run public option health insurance program in order to placate centrists like Nelson and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Nelson also cast doubt on the Senate's ability to finish the legislation by Christmas, the date by which Democrats had hoped to finish their bill.

"A deadline and timeline that's out there that's not achievable isn't helpful," he said. "I couldn't tell you that they can't come up with something that's acceptable on abortion between now and then and solve all the other issues that I've raised to them, but I don't see how."

Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), an abortion-rights supporter, could be Reid's best bet if he loses Nelson over abortion. On Tuesday, Snowe said that the abortion language in the Reid bill, based on a version of the legislation she supported in the Finance Committee, is appropriate. "The provision as developed in the Finance Committee bill, I think, addressed the question that we preserve current law," she told The Hill.

Nelson also cast doubt on the Senate's ability to finish the legislation by Christmas, the date by which Democrats had hoped to finish their bill.

"A deadline and timeline that's out there that's not achievable isn't helpful," he said. "I couldn't tell you that they can't come up with something that's acceptable on abortion between now and then and solve all the other issues that I've raised to them, but I don't see how."

Nelson released a statement later Thursday afternoon confirming he won't vote for the bill in its current form.