In the News 2009
Congressional Quarterly

Abortion Funding Amendment Headed to Likely Defeat in Senate


The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on a Democratic amendment to the health care overhaul bill aimed at tightening the measure’s restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions.

Democratic opponents of the amendment, which was introduced Monday by Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are expected to be able to muster the votes to defeat it.

But regardless of the outcome, abortion will remain a significant issue as debate on the bill (HR 3590) continues: Nelson says he will join a filibuster of the measure if it does not contain such language, which is in the version passed by the House (HR 3962).

“I believe that the current health care reform we’re debating should not be used to open a new avenue for public funding of abortion,” he said.

According to a senior Senate Democratic aide, the amendment will be subject to a 60-vote threshold for passage — the same as the other amendments processed so far. Asked on Monday whether opponents had the votes to defeat the amendment, Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski replied: “Absolutely.”

Unless Nelson changes his mind, Democratic leaders will have to do one of two things: come up with language that satisfies him without eroding Democratic support for the underlying bill or secure the backing of at least one Republican senator to offset the loss of his vote from the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

Nelson’s amendment — which duplicates language added to the House bill by Bart Stupak, D-Mich. — would prohibit the proposed government-run insurance plan from covering abortions other than in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. It would also limit abortion coverage for low-income people who use federal subsidies to purchase insurance.

Nine senators, including Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch and Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey, are cosponsoring the amendment.

Casey declined on Monday to say explicitly whether his support for the health care measure was dependent on the fate of the amendment, but he signaled that it was not. “I’ve made it a policy not to have support for the bill hinge on any one issue,” he said. “I think the imperative of getting a good bill done here is about as urgent as it gets. But I still believe we can work through several difficult issues.”

California Democrat Barbara Boxer suggested Monday that Nelson’s amendment was tantamount to gender discrimination.

“The men who have brought us this don’t single out a procedure that’s used by a man or a drug that is used by a man that involves his reproductive health care,” she said, adding that the amendment “would be the biggest rollback to a woman’s right to choose in decades.”

Hyde History

Language limiting the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, other than in instances of rape or incest or where the woman’s life is at risk, has been added to appropriations bills for decades. Introduced in 1976 by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill. (1975-2007), the rider has become known as the Hyde amendment.

Abortion rights supporters say the Senate legislation contains proscriptions against federal funding for abortions, but Nelson and his allies contend that the bill could allow for such funding.

Another GOP cosponsor of the amendment, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, said he thought Democratic leaders would schedule a vote on it in part to provide political cover for its opponents so they could go on record against it.

But Coburn predicted that the language eventually would be folded into a Democratic manager’s amendment and that senators who support abortion rights would be asked to vote for the manager’s amendment despite their opposition to the Stupak language.

“My suspicion is that when we see a manager’s amendment, the Stupak language will be in there,” he said.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which lobbied hard for the Stupak amendment in the House, sent a letter Monday to senators urging support for Nelson’s amendment.

In the letter, the bishops argued that the amendment would “keep in place the longstanding and widely supported federal policy against government funding of health coverage that includes elective abortions.”

The conference is also urging Catholics to contact senators.

But Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, said Nelson “put the policy priorities of the U.S. Catholic bishops before the needs of women nationwide.”

Abortion rights activists were rallying their supporters against the amendment in advance of Tuesday’s expected vote.

The article originally appeared in Congressional Quarterly.

Catholics for Choice