Nelson offers abortion amendment to Senate healthcare reform legislation

The Senate took a crucial step toward a showdown on abortion with the introduction of an amendment by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and nine other anti-abortion-rights senators.

Nelson argues the healthcare bill introduced by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), does not do enough to prevent federal dollars from being used to finance abortion services. 

“As written, the Senate healthcare bill allows taxpayer dollars, directly and indirectly, to pay for insurance plans that cover abortion. Most Nebraskans, and Americans, do not favor using public funds to cover abortion and as a result this bill shouldn’t open the door to do so,” Nelson said in a statement.

Nelson has made plain that he is prepared to join a Republican filibuster of the bill if strict abortion language is not adopted.

The Senate will consider the amendment in the coming days but Nelson and his anti-abortion-rights allies in the Senate likely cannot muster the 60 votes they need to prevail.

Because Reid needs to hold his entire 60-member Democratic caucus together on the healthcare bill in order to advance it toward passage, a defection by Nelson over abortion would force Reid to seek at least one GOP supporter.

Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Sam Brownback (Kansas), John Thune (S.D.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) Mike Johanns (Neb.), David Vitter (La.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.) co-sponsored the amendment. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) also co-sponsored the Nelson amendment but has said he would not block the final bill from passage if the amendment fails.

Casey, Nelson and other lawmakers worked closely with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to come up with language that would meet the church's requirements. In a letter sent to all 100 senators Monday, the bishops endorse the Nelson amendment.

The Nelson amendment is based on language authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and attached to the House-passed healthcare reform bill. Though the Stupak amendment passed the House floor and pro-abortion-rights Democrats in the lower chamber did not revolt and oppose the legislation itself, interest groups and abortion-rights supporters in the House and Senate have vowed to fight a healthcare bill that includes the Stupak amendment or similar provisions. President Barack Obama also indicated after the House vote that the Stupak amendment goes too far.

The authors of the Senate healthcare reform legislation maintain, as the did the authors of the underlying House bill, that their measure already upholds a law named after former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) that prohibits federal funding of abortions by requiring abortion services be paid for using only money from insurance customers’ premiums, not from any federal funding or federal subsidies. But anti-abortion-rights lawmakers and activists, including the Catholic Church, reject this approach as an accounting gimmick.

Two of the Republican co-sponsors expressed doubt the amendment would pass the Senate even if all anti-abortion-rights Republicans vote for it.

"A lot of us on the Republican side will support that. The question is whether or not you can get 60, which I think is very much in doubt," said Thune, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. "I certainly hope that it passes. I’m enough of a realist, talking to both Democrats and Republicans, to believe that that’s going to be a very heavy lift."

Even if the amendment goes down as expected, Coburn predicted Reid would be forced to include provisions similar to the Stupak amendment in the final bill via a manager's amendment containing numerous changes agreed to by the Democratic caucus if he hopes to win 60 votes.

Reid is holding a vote on the Nelson amendment to provide Democrats on both sides of the abortion issue with political cover so they can say they fought for their principles, Coburn said.

"They’re going to allow a cover vote," Coburn said, "so everybody can stake their position [and] say, ‘Well, I can’t control the manager’s amendment.’"