House votes to limit abortion coverage under Affordable Care Act

The House voted Tuesday to permanently ban federal spending on abortion, and to block the flow of federal subsidies to ObamaCare insurance plans that cover abortion.

Members voted 227-188 to pass the No Taxpayer Funding of Abortion Act, H.R. 7. The bill is similar to one the House passed in 2011 with the help of 16 Democrats. This time around, only six Democrats voted with the GOP.

One Republican voted no — Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) — and Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) voted "present." Democrats voting with the GOP were Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Dan Lipinski (Ill.), Tim Matheson (Utah), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), and Nick Rahall (W.Va.).

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The legislation would make permanent the ban on federal spending on abortion, something that has been approved each year for decades through the Hyde Amendment, a policy rider attached to the Health and Human Services spending bill. Republicans said this policy has been renewed with bipartisan support since the late 1970s, and that Congress should have no qualms about making it permanent.

"It has been renewed each appropriations cycle with few changes for over 35 years, supported by Congresses controlled by both parties and presidents from both parties," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). "It is probably the most bipartisan, pro-life proposal sustained over a longer period of time than any other."

But the bill goes further, by closing what Republicans say is a loophole that allows the government to subsidize health insurance plans bought under ObamaCare that cover abortion. The GOP said those subsidies, which take the form of tax credits, are essentially a government payment toward abortion coverage, and that this subsidy goes against the intent of the Hyde Amendment.

"The ACA breaks with the tradition of the Hyde Amendment, which has ensured that federal dollars do not subsidize plans that cover abortion," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). "The bill before us would simply codify the Hyde Amendment language so it applies across the federal government."

Democrats said the bill is not needed precisely because Congress continues to renew the Hyde Amendment, and said the language goes too far by denying people tax credits for making their own choice to buy abortion coverage. Democrats like Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said the elimination of the tax credit would force the government to inject itself into people's private healthcare decisions.

"This bill would squarely put the government, namely the IRS, in the exam room by effectively raising the taxes of those who choose an insurance plan that happens to cover abortion services," Capps said.

Democrats also argued that federal funding of abortion is different from government tax credits given to people who buy abortion coverage. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said a decision by Congress to treat tax credits as government spending could have other adverse implications.

"If we adopt this new theory, that granting tax relief is federal funding, then how can tax relief for churches and synagogues and religiously affiliated schools not be considered federal funding in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment?" Nadler asked. "We should all be very careful about establishing this new principle."

Other Democrats argued that under ObamaCare, no taxpayer money goes toward abortion coverage because the law requires people to pay for abortion coverage separately and out of their own pocket. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said that was a compromise that was struck in ObamaCare, and that Republicans are trying to undo that compromise and limit access to abortion by making it more expensive to buy abortion coverage.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the main sponsor of the bill, rejected that argument, and said ObamaCare is a clear violation of the Hyde Amendment that must be corrected.

"Under the Affordable Care Act, massive amounts of public funds… will pay for insurance plans, many, perhaps most of which, will include elective abortions, abortion on demand," Smith said. "That massively violates the Hyde Amendment."

Smith's bill ends tax credits for both individuals and small businesses that buy health insurance under ObamaCare. But it would allow people to buy separate abortion coverage provided by a non-federal source, as long as no tax credits are provided.

It also says that no facility owned or operated by the federal government or the District of Columbia, or by any doctor employed by these facilities, can provide abortion services. That was one of the provisions that led the White House to say President Obama would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.

"The administration strongly opposes legislation that unnecessarily restricts women's reproductive freedoms and consumers' private insurance options," the White House said Monday.

The House passed the bill just hours before Obama was set to deliver his fifth State of the Union address in the House chamber to a joint session of Congress.