Abortion funding opens rift in House health bill

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Would abortions be easier or harder to obtain under the health care overhaul legislation that the House of Representatives is likely to consider later this week?

It depends on how one interprets the bill.

Abortion foes are upset that the measure would require plans that offer elective abortion services to set aside at least a dollar a month from each of their patient's private premium dollars in an account strictly apart from any federal funds.

That segregated funding, abortion-rights backers say, would assure that federal money wouldn't be used.

They point to a different part of the bill to illustrate how they respect the rights of abortion opponents: The bill would require the new health exchanges, or marketplaces generally organized by state or region, to offer at least one insurance plan that doesn't include abortion services.

Abortion opponents aren't pleased.

To Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., such policies would "depart from current laws in important and troubling ways."

For the past 32 years, federal money can only pay for abortions in the case of rape, incest or to protect a woman's life.

However, to Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., a leader in the effort to find compromise, the legislation doesn't expand the government's role in funding abortion.

"Health insurance reform legislation is not the place to be breaking any new ground on the issue of abortion," she said.

Anti-abortion lawmakers, thought to include 20 to 40 Democrats and virtually all the 177 Republicans, have expressed serious concerns about abortion language in the health care bill.

Democrats control 256 of the 435 House seats — two are vacant — and 218 are needed for a majority, but party leaders are convinced that a compromise on the abortion language can be reached shortly. The Senate, where Democrats control 60 of the 100 seats, is expected to follow suit.

"I am pretty confident we can get there," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday, "essentially making very clear that any money spent on the issue of termination of pregnancy will not be spent by the government but by the individuals."

Many Democrats who described themselves as "pro-life" were confident as well.

"I can't imagine that this will kill comprehensive health care reform," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa.

House leaders are hoping to begin debate Friday, with a final vote possible as soon as Saturday. Senate action is expected later, but perhaps not before the end of this year.

Though Democrats have been adamant that they want a bill on President Barack Obama's desk by year's end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that, "We're not going to be bound by any timelines." Reid has had trouble finding consensus among Democratic moderates to move forward with legislation.

The House is ready to move ahead. Currently, its bill says no federal money would be used for abortion services, unless a pregnancy was the result of a rape, incest or endangered a woman's life. Only private funds, generated by the patients' private monthly premium payments, could be used to pay for other abortion services.

Democratic leaders say the compromise that should woo abortion foes will involve making the legislative language regarding such measures more emphatic.

In addition, Capps pointed to the other bill provision that she and other abortion rights backers say assures opponents their views are respected — the one that requires each health premium rating, or coverage, area to include at least one insurance plan that offers abortion services and one that doesn't.

That has its most dramatic impact on the Medicaid program, the state-federal program that provides medical coverage for lower income people. Many states currently use state money to help pay for abortion services beyond those permitted by the federal government.

Chances are few on the two sides of the issue will be fully satisfied — except Democratic leaders, who're eager to vote on the bill.

"I am confident of prevailing," Hoyer said, "and I am confident of prevailing before Veterans Day," Nov. 11.


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For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

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