Liberals threaten to oppose healthcare bill over Stupak abortion amendment

Reps. Diana DeGette (Colo.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) led the group of Democrats in writing to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) threatening to withhold support for a final conference report if it strictly prohibits federal funding for abortion services.

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“We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women’s right to choose any further than current law,” reads a draft of the letter.

DeGette and Slaughter, who is the chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee, also wrote President Barack Obama requesting a meeting on the issue next week.

Obama indicated that his aim is to maintain the current federal limitations on funding for abortions, not expand them, and he hinted the language adopted by the House may go too far. “There needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we’re not changing the status quo,” Obama said during an interview that will air on ABC News.

“This is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill. And we’re not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions,” Obama said. “I want to make sure ... that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices.”

A majority of senators are on record in support of abortion rights, making the prospect of winning 60 votes for stronger restrictions difficult.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) must also consider finding 60 votes to move the final bill. Centrists Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) have voiced misgivings about federal funding for abortions, with Nelson through his spokesman praising the House language on Monday.

Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) voted for strong anti-abortion language during committee deliberations.

Sens. Nelson, Landrieu, Casey, Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) have voted in the past to limit federal funding for abortions, including a ban on abortion coverage in the Indian Health Service.

Reid, who also opposes abortion rights, faces reelection pressures that could pull him in both directions. He does not plan to alter the abortion language approved by the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees in the merged bill headed to the Senate floor, according to an aide.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), an abortion-rights opponent, tried to bolster the language restricting abortions during both Senate committee markups, but his amendments were rejected. Republicans are likely to try again during the floor debate, and they can expect the backing of some anti-abortion-rights Democrats.

“This is a very important issue to Sen. Nelson and it is highly unlikely he would support a bill that doesn’t clearly prohibit federal dollars from going to abortion,” Jake Thompson, Nelson’s communications director, wrote in an e-mail. Nelson supports the abortion restrictions in the House bill, authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Thompson wrote. “He believes that no federal money — including subsidies or tax credits — should be used to buy insurance coverage for abortion.”

Countering the anti-abortion-rights Democrats are Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who support such rights. Snowe voted against Hatch’s amendment in the Finance Committee.

In the House, all but one Republican voted for the Stupak amendment. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) voted present.

The authors of the Senate bills, along with abortion-rights supporters, maintain the healthcare bills do not soften current limits on federal money being used to pay for abortions. The language seeks to maintain the existing “Hyde amendment” limitations by dictating that federal dollars be kept separate from enrollees’ premiums when purchasing insurance that covers abortion and is silent on whether the public option could cover abortions.

The House bill would go further by prohibiting insurance companies from selling policies that pay for abortion services unless customers purchase supplementary coverage and forbids the government-run public option insurance plan from paying for abortions.

“This is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill,” Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has argued. “The attempt here is to find language that just maintains the status quo.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other anti-abortion-rights groups reject that claim and support the limitations adopted by the House.

Activists on both sides believe they can prevail in the Senate.

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“We’ve got millions of pro-choice voters and when our voters get unhappy, they take action,” said Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Though the abortion issue lingered in the House for months, Rubiner said the endgame unfolded too quickly for abortion-rights groups to mount a counteroffensive.

On the heels of a major victory in the House, however, National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson said momentum is on their side. Now that the House fight has pushed the issue to the forefront, even some senators who support abortion rights are “not going to vote for public funding of abortion in this public glare,” Johnson said.

Were the Senate to adopt language akin to the Stupak amendment, the hopes of pro-abortion-rights Democrats that the restrictions would be cut from the final bill in conference would be seriously dimmed.

A number of avowed pro-choice Democrats voted for the Stupak amendment — a pattern that could repeat itself on the Senate floor — underscoring that abortion-rights supporters face a more difficult challenge than on other abortion-related votes.

Nearly all House Democrats who support abortion rights voted for their chamber’s bill despite being upset that Pelosi allowed for a vote on the Stupak amendment. But opponents of the language say its place in the bill is temporary.

“I am confident that when it comes back from the conference committee that that language won’t be there,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said on MSNBC Monday.

“Frankly, the women of America should be furious because this just does not say no federal funding for abortion, this says women cannot use their own money to buy an insurance policy that would include a legal medical procedure,” DeGette said.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) indicated Monday that she could vote to pass the healthcare bill if it included more restrictions on abortion coverage, despite describing herself as a “pro-choice candidate.”

“I’m not sure that this is going to be enough to kill the bill,” McCaskill said on MSNBC Monday. “This is an example of having to govern with moderates,” she said. “We can’t just turn our back on the fact that the reason we’re in the majority is because states like Indiana, and Arkansas and Louisiana, and Missouri and North Carolina and Virginia sent Democrats to the Senate.”

Likewise, senators who oppose abortion rights are not guaranteed to vote against a bill that lacks provisions akin to the Stupak amendment.

Though Conrad voted for Hatch’s amendment in the Finance Committee, a spokesman would not say whether the senator’s support for the healthcare bill is contingent on the abortion issue. “There are many variables. He will have to see what [is] in the final package,” Sean Neary, Conrad’s communications director, wrote in an e-mail.


Jordan Fabian and Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.