Abortion debate revived over Senate language in final days of health bill fight

Congressional Republicans and Democrats renewed a long-simmering war of words over abortion rules in the current pending healthcare bill just days before a dramatic, weekend House vote.

A group of five Republicans — Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Reps. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Washington and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — held a press conference to insist that the Senate bill pending before the House would provide public money for abortions. Specifically, the five Republicans said the Senate bill excludes the 34-year-old Hyde Amendment, an annual congressional provision — not a law — that restricts federal funds for abortion.

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Firing back less than an hour later, a group of pro-life religious leaders trotted out House Democrats Dale Kildee (Mich.) and Charlie Wilson (Ohio), both longtime abortion opponents, who insisted that the Senate bill contains more than adequate protections against federally funded abortions.

A prominent abortion critic, Kildee moved from the undecided column of House Democrats to a ‘yes’ vote this week, adding to a sense that the party is gaining momentum toward a successful vote probably Sunday. Democrats hope the House will pass the Senate-approved bill, and that the Senate will successfully use reconciliation rules to approve a sequel bill making changes to pacify House Democrats.

“I spent six years in a Catholic seminary, studying to be a priest, and I will be 81 years old this September. Certainly at this stage of my life I’m not going to change my mind and support abortion,” Kildee said in a conference call. “I’m not going to jeopardize my eternal life. I am absolutely convinced the original intent of the Hyde Amendment is in the Senate bill: No federal funds for abortion except for cases of rape, incest and the endangerment of the mother’s life.”

Wilson (D-Ohio) also identified himself as a pro-life Catholic and said he is “confident the Senate bill upholds my pro-life values.”

At issue is whether the Senate bill is explicit enough in its restrictions on federal funds for abortions. Republicans say it isn’t, pointing for example to a section of the bill that would provide funds to community health centers that can provide abortions.

Likewise, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) is leading a group of House Democrats who plan to vote against the Senate bill because it does not do enough to restrict the flow of federal subsidies for abortion services. Stupak was responsible for an explicit amendment that restricted abortion funding in the House bill that passed last November. But Stupak’s amendment isn’t in the Senate bill, and a Senate attempt to add it, led by Hatch last year, failed with only 45 votes in the upper chamber.

Hatch, Brownback, Johanns, Brownback and McMorris-Rodgers said without such a provision, the Hyde Amendment wouldn’t be enforced if the Senate bill becomes law.

“At this point, the only way to ensure that taxpayer funding is not used for abortions is to stop this bill,” said McMorris-Rodgers.

“The only way that we are going to stop public funding for abortions is literally to step in front of this bill and do all we can to make sure it isn’t passed,” said Johanns.

But Kildee, Wilson and others note that the Hyde Amendment has never been a codified law, but only a clause routinely added to appropriations bills each year since 1976. Asked about the Republican criticism, Kildee and Wilson said they see nothing in the Senate bill that makes the Hyde Amendment unenforceable.

“Much of this is about misinformation,” Kildee said. “It changes each day, and each day they come up with a different reason.... Each time I respond to it, I go back and read the bill, I have my staff read it, I have attorneys read it. I do not accept it. They (Republicans) are wrong.”

Dr. Timothy S. Jost, a legal scholar at the Washington and Lee School of Law, said is true that the bill provides funding to community health centers without explicit language subjecting them to the Hyde Amendment. However, he said many community health centers have regulations that restrict or ban abortions, and that the federal funds they receive are often pooled with other federal funds that do carry specific restrictions under the Hyde Amendment.

“This is a pro-life bill, and pro-life men and women should support it,” Jost said.

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