Senate rejects abortion amendment to health reform legislation

The Senate voted against strengthening restrictions for federal funding of abortion Tuesday evening, a development that could imperil Democrats’ efforts to pass an underlying healthcare reform bill.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who offered the amendment, had indicated that he could support a Republican filibuster of the healthcare reform bill if the abortion language were not added to it. The Senate voted to table Nelson’s amendment, which takes it off the floor with a simple majority, on a 54-45 tally.

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“It’s made it harder to be supportive. We’ll just have to see what develops,” Nelson said after the vote. “We’ll have to see if they can make it easier.”

Senate Democratic leaders said they would keep the lines of communication open with Nelson, who also opposes other elements of the healthcare reform bill.

“I’m happy to continue working with Sen. Nelson with the issue that is now on the floor,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said prior to the vote. “If, in fact, he doesn’t succeed here, we’ll try something else.” Reid opposes abortion rights.

“No one should use the healthcare bill to expand or restrict abortion," Reid said during an emotional floor speech. “And no one should use the issue of abortion to rob millions of the opportunity to get good healthcare.”

Six Democrats voted with Nelson: Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Ted Kaufman (Del.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.).

Those Democrats are not expected to oppose the healthcare bill as a result of the amendment’s failing.

Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, voted against Nelson.

Reid needs to hold together the entire 60-member Democratic Conference if he hopes to pass the healthcare reform bill. Losing Nelson would be fatal unless Reid were to make concessions in other areas to win the votes of Snowe or other GOP senators.

Reid could insert another compromise on abortion into the bill, but a middle ground has proven elusive all year.

"I had no Plan B," Nelson said. "Maybe somebody else has a Plan B, but I don’t see that this is one where there’s really any room for compromise."

On the other side of the issue, the vote on the Nelson amendment demonstrated, however, that nearly all of the Senate’s Democrats support abortion rights and oppose the restrictions favored by Nelson and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

“Putting the Stupak language in, of course, raises other questions,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “This is a zero-sum situation: We could gain one senator and lose several others.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded to threats by Stupak and other anti-abortion-rights Democrats to oppose the House’s healthcare bill over the abortion issue by permitting a vote on the amendment. Sixty-four Democrats voted for the amendment, which passed 240-194.

The House’s action sparked fury from activist groups to lawmakers in both chambers. House Democrats who voted to pass the healthcare bill despite the abortion language vowed to oppose any conference report that retained the Stupak language, while Senate Democrats pledged to stymie efforts to add similar provisions to that bill.

Existing federal law already prohibits taxpayer funds from being used to fund abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is endangered by the pregnancy. Reid insists that his bill merely maintains that current standard, but Nelson, other anti-abortion-rights lawmakers and groups that oppose such rights, including the Catholic Church, do not think the legislation does enough to block federal money from going to abortions

Opponents of the Nelson amendment, which is based on the Stupak provisions in the House bill, maintain that it would effectively prevent women from obtaining abortion coverage through the health insurance plans offered under the reform bill.