Abortion, immigration, taxes enter health mark up

Hot-button political issues were the order of the day during the Senate Finance Committee’s continuing mark up of its healthcare reform bill.

Senators considered amendments to the bill on abortion, immigration and taxes. Though Republicans on the panel did not succeed in altering the healthcare legislation, they did force Democrats to take votes that will provide additional fodder for conservative criticism.

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Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) offered two abortion-related amendments Wednesday, both of which were rejected on mostly party-line votes, though Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) switched sides.

Hatch’s first amendment would have required women to purchase a separate, supplemental insurance plan to cover abortion services. The aim, he said, was to make existing laws against federal money being used to pay for abortions, and the language in the healthcare bill, ironclad.

“All I'm asking -- my gosh -- is for specific language in the bill that prohibits federal dollars from being used to fund abortions,” Hatch said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) described Hatch's amendment as "insulting" to women.

Democrats on the committee, along with Snowe, rejected Hatch's argument, saying it would be unfair to require women to purchase separate insurance coverage for abortion services. "It's discriminating against women," said committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who authored the bill.

The bill hews to existing laws on federal funding for abortion, Baucus argued. "The mark makes it clear that no federal funds will be used for abortion. None. None. It's very clear," he said. The existing rules, known as the Hyde amendment, includes exceptions for abortions from pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or when the life of the woman is endangered.

Under the legislation, the federal tax credits used by individuals could not be used for abortion services. Instead, the policyholder's share of the premiums would be "segregated" from the federal dollars and go toward paying for abortion coverage.

That distinction is inadequate because money is inherently fungible, Hatch argued, and the bill needs a clearer prohibition to ensure no federal money goes to pay for an abortion. "You can't establish complete segregation of the funds."

A second Hatch amendment, designed to strengthen existing "conscience clause" laws protecting healthcare workers from performing abortions or other services to which they have moral or ethical objections, also failed on a 10-13 vote.

On immigration, Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sought to strengthen the laws requiring people to validate their citizenship or legal residency in order to obtain federal health benefits. Under Grassley’s amendment, which fell on a party-line vote, applicants would have been required to show photo identification.

The bill healthcare bill would require applicants to verify their names, places of birth and Social Security numbers. In addition, legal immigrants would have to wait five years, as under current law, after obtaining citizenship or legal residency to access federal healthcare benefits such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program or receive tax credits or purchase insurance through the exchange created by the legislation.

But the would not require them to show a photo ID, such as a driver's license. Without that requirement, the bill "remains dearly lacking when it comes to identification," Grassley said. "Frankly, I'm very perplexed as to why anyone would oppose this amendment," he said.

But Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who represents the border state of New Mexico, said that the type of fraud Grassley said he wants to prevent is highly uncommon. "The way I see the amendment, it's a solution without a problem," Bingaman said.

Republicans also failed to win votes on amendment that would have stripped billions of dollars in fees on health insurers and other healthcare companies from the bill. Those fees, Republicans argued, will be passed on to customers and result in higher healthcare costs and higher insurance premiums.

One substantial amendment was added to the bill Wednesday, at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) for the aging population of his home state. "We should not raise taxes on the seniors to pay for health reform," Nelson said. Snowe joined the Democrats during the vote.

Republicans on the panel attacked the idea of raising the deductibilty threshold to 10 percent for anyone. "I think this is the worst idea in an ocean of bad ideas," Hatch said. Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) offered an amendment to leave the current law in place but the committee rejected it and Snowe again voted with the Democrats.