By Alexander Bolton - 12/03/09 06:39 PM EST
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told reporters Thursday that he
would not vote to advance healthcare reform legislation unless it includes
language that would restrict access to abortions for women who receive federal subsidies.
Nelson’s stance puts Democratic leaders in a difficult position as they brace
for difficult votes on two amendments to their healthcare legislation.
The Senate will soon consider an amendment offered by Nelson that would be similar to the abortion amendment sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that the House adopted last month.
The Senate will also consider an amendment offered by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would allow drug re-importation, a popular proposal that could derail a delicate alliance President Barack Obama forged with the pharmaceutical industry.
“It appears at this stage that Sen. Nelson is going to offer the Stupak amendment; whether he’s going to be joined with any Senate Republicans is still something he’s waiting to find out,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters.
“I talked to Sen. Dorgan today and he’s considering offering a drug re-importation bill as soon as he gets a chance."
Reid said the Senate would hold votes over the weekend and threatened to bring lawmakers back to Washington between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Reid said he had several conversations with Nelson on Thursday in an effort to soothe his colleague’s concerns over abortion and a proposal to set up a government-run insurance program.
“I’ve always found him to be a reasonable person,” said Reid. “He’s very concerned about the Stupak amendment and he’s very concerned about the public option.”
Reid, one of a few Senate Democrats who describe themselves as “pro-life,” said he did not know whether he would vote for Nelson’s amendment until he reviewed it.
Even if Republicans joined Nelson en masse to restrict the availability of abortion coverage to women who receive federal subsidies, it does not appear the amendment would have enough votes to pass. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the amendment, which would need 60 votes to become adopted.
Nevertheless, Nelson’s amendment creates a significant obstacle, because the centrist Democrat’s support is crucial to overcome a GOP filibuster and move the health bill to a final vote.
Liberal House Democrats who favor abortion rights have counted on the Senate to keep language similar to Stupak’s abortion measure out of its version of healthcare reform. That would give negotiators a good chance to strip the Stupak amendment from the final bill during conference talks.
But if both chambers approve restrictions on abortion, it will be significantly more difficult to eliminate such language in conference talks.
Dorgan’s drug re-importation amendment is another significant hurdle. Allowing for the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada and European countries is popular among many Democrats and Republicans, giving Dorgan’s proposal a strong chance of passage.
Opening the nation’s borders to a flood of cheap drug imports, however, would wreck a deal Obama administration officials and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) hammered out with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
White House strategists have considered the political support of PhRMA essential to building enough political momentum for healthcare reform. If the industry pours its substantial resources into ads attacking healthcare reform legislation, it could sway wavering lawmakers.
Reid said he would file cloture to move to a final vote “when we work out all the problems we have on the legislation.”
Asked when that might happen, Reid said “soon.”
“We’re going to have votes this weekend,” Reid said.
When asked about the prospect of returning between Christmas and New Year's, he added: “We’ll have to see. I hope we don’t have to, but we might have to.”
Reid said Republican obstructionist tactics as outlined in a memo circulated by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) are “not going to stop us from getting a bill.”