UPDATE, 8:25a: The Politico article below indicated a vote may come as early as today on a Nelson-Hatch pro-life amendment to the Senate healthcare bill. However, a reliable Senate source wrote this morning, "Such an amendment has yet to even be filed and no agreements have been reached regarding that issue." Stay tuned.
7:20a:This is all good up to the last 3 paragraphs, wherein Sen. Nelson seems to indicate he would consider a compromise if his pro-life bill fails on the Senate floor, which it almost certainly will. According to Politico, December 5:
In the past week, abortion has flared up as a major impediment to passage of a health care reform bill in the Senate, taking a similar path as it did during the House debate - from obscurity to obstacle in a matter of days.
After months of trying to craft a 60-vote coalition based on the finer points of health care policy, Senate Democrats are growing increasingly worried that abortion will upend what had become a clear path to approving the overhaul bill....
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) sparked a fresh round of concern this week when he repeatedly and definitively vowed to filibuster the health care legislation unless it included abortion restrictions as tough as the so-called Stupak amendment in the House bill.
"I don't ordinarily draw a line in the sand, but I have drawn a line in the sand," Nelson said Friday.
Nelson certainly has a long history of agitating his party by withholding his vote until he wrings out every last concession from Senate leaders. But on the uncompromising issue of abortion, Democrats fear he may really be serious this time.
"There is a worry that Sen. Nelson means business," said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. "Unlike with public option, there is very little ground liberal Democrats are willing to give on this issue. Abortion, not the public option, may be the cause of our first official defection."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which proved highly influential in the House health care debate, is assisting Nelson and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in drafting an anti-abortion amendment, and its representatives are meeting with senators, including Byron Dorgan (D-ND).
The bishops have also sent a nationwide bulletin insert to its parishes for Sunday Mass, according to a source familiar with the plans. The conference rallied parishioners in a similar way ahead of the House vote. The bishops conference didn't return calls seeking comment.
Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue are using the weekend to mobilize supporters ahead of a debate that could begin as early as Monday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had expected to dispense with the abortion amendments by the weekend, but Nelson sought more time.
"Delay is always good," said Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, a group that opposes abortion.
For months, Senate Democrats have been gaming out various paths to 60 votes on the other major intractable problem - a government insurance plan. They continue to struggle with a solution, but there is a growing sense a compromise can ultimately be forged and it would not be the reason the bill fails, aides said.
"On abortion, nobody is in a mood to deal at all," the senior aide said.
The way the abortion debate unfolded in the House caught abortion rights supporters off guard, and they have been as unbending as abortion opponents on the Stupak amendment, which prohibits individuals from using federal subsidies to buy policies that cover abortion. Abortion rights supporters say the language would discourage insurers from offering abortion coverage in any of their plans, potentially limiting access to the procedure for millions of women.
"We are going to defeat it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) of Nelson's amendment, which is expected to closely mirror the Stupak language.
Asked if he believed abortion could derail the health care bill, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) didn't hesitate: "Yes, absolutely."
"Clearly, this is one of the major challenges facing this bill," said Conrad, who votes with abortion opponents. "The settled policy of the government is that there is not taxpayer funding of abortion, and we are trying to continue that policy. It is very complicated in the context of an exchange and a public option to continue the Hyde amendment policy that has long been in place. Lots of smart people working on ways to try to be able to ensure people that is the case, on both sides. We have not reached a conclusion."
Reid plans to schedule several votes on the issue to "demonstrate that the 60 votes are not there," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
If Nelson's amendment fails, which is expected, the question at that point is what would he do - and how does Reid get to 60 votes on the overall bill without him?
Nelson told Politico this week that he would not walk away from the negotiations if the Senate rejects his amendment. "No, no, no. I'm a facilitator," he said. "If this bill is going to pass without me, I still want it to be the best bill."
Reid could attempt to reach a compromise that forces both sides to give up something, and include the new language in a "manager's amendment" that goes up for a vote right before debate ends on the bill.
Or else, the majority leader may need to go aggressively after one or both of the ME Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who support abortion rights. That could mean major concessions on the public option, taxes and the mandate on individuals to purchase insurance - aspects of the Democratic bill that they oppose.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he expected Democrats to find a compromise that brings Nelson along.
"At the end of the day, we need Sen. Nelson's vote. We still don't have a promise of a vote from the Republican side, and so we would need his vote to make our 60," Durbin told reporters in a conference call Friday.
Durbin didn't specify what kind of compromise would bring Nelson on board. He said the Senate will consider Nelson's amendment when the NE Democrat is ready to bring it to the floor, but leadership is encouraging him to go ahead without Hatch, who indicated he needed more time to review the amendment with outside groups.
Nelson, however, was quick to bat down any notion of a compromise.
"No," Nelson said Friday, when asked if he would accept softer language. "I don't want to start talking about compromises before I have an opportunity to offer something."
I don't know what kind of health care reform will come out of this session, but I strongly suspect it won't be much. There is, however a silver lining behind this very dark cloud. I am reminded of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of it, there really isn't a hell of a lot to remember about it; a mere pittance, really - a scrap of leftovers tossed out to "American Negros" (in the parlance of the age) in order to appease them. But it made the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - the one we remember - all-the-more easier seven years later.
We'll live to fight another day.
I applaud Nelson, I really do. I just hope his fight isn't in vain...Posted by: Stephanie at December 7, 2009 9:58 AM