A senator's moral dilemma on health bill
Nelson's stand against abortion complicates support for reform

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

When he took office in 1991 as Nebraska's governor, Ben Nelson was one of just two Democratic governors opposed to abortion rights. The other, Robert Casey Sr. of Pennsylvania, soon found that position played no small role in denying him a speaking role at the party's 1992 national convention.

Almost 19 years later, with a new abortion fight threatening a Democratic priority -- the passage of sweeping health-care legislation -- Nelson finds himself again on the outside looking in. This time around, the late Casey's son, Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), has a key role in finding a compromise that would allow Nelson to join the rest of his Democratic colleagues behind President Obama's foremost domestic agenda item.

Nelson has spent his nine years in the Senate crafting middle-ground compromises by splitting the difference on tax and spending proposals. Abortion remains the one issue on which he cannot compromise his values, even if he ends up as the only Democrat to join a Republican filibuster torpedoing the legislation. "There isn't any real way to move away from your principle on abortion," Nelson said in a 30-minute interview Thursday in his office.

After a summer and fall dominated by disagreements over a proposed government-run insurance plan, abortion has emerged late as an unexpected controversy within the health-care debate. At issue is whether those receiving federal health-insurance subsidies will be able to buy policies that include abortion services.

Most antiabortion lawmakers believe this would violate the three-decade-old Hyde Amendment, which forbids the federal funding of abortion services. The controversy nearly scuttled the bill in the House until a group of antiabortion Democrats pushed through an amendment outlawing any funding for abortion services in the public option.

Nelson's effort to insert the House language into the Senate legislation failed Tuesday, leaving him unable to support a bill that is increasingly to his liking in most other areas.

Casey and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) are negotiating with the White House over language that would satisfy Nelson as well as abortion-rights supporters. One alternative is a proposal from Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) that would require the health secretary to use private contractors to divide premiums for elective abortions under the public option from other amounts paid to the federal government.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chamber's leading supporter of abortion rights, said Friday that she could support a compromise that established "a firewall" between federal and private funding for abortion services, without specifically addressing Ellsworth's proposal. "The status quo is what I'm after," she said.

Nelson has remained coy about whether Ellsworth's plan goes far enough for his liking.

That Nelson finds himself in the middle of such a high-profile battle is not unusual, but abortion is a far different fight than trying to slice the numbers on the 2001 and 2003 Bush White House tax cuts or paring down Obama's stimulus legislation to $787 billion. "You can't split the difference" on abortion, as Nelson recently told reporters.

Nelson has always been a staunch opponent of abortion, fully aware of how the issue colored the politics of his conservative-leaning state. As governor, Nelson signed into law strict parental notification laws and a ban on partial-birth abortions, as they are known by opponents, that was deemed the toughest in the nation, leading to a Supreme Court battle.

Even those credentials weren't sufficient to win full support from the antiabortion community in his first two Senate races, the first a loss in 1996 and the second a narrow victory in 2000. In both of those races, Nelson had large leads that evaporated in the final weeks as some antiabortion groups urged Christian conservatives to oppose having another Democrat in the Senate.

Deep down, Nelson is a numbers man, a former insurance company chief executive and one-time state insurance commissioner. He loves to split the difference in negotiations, epitomized by a framed cocktail napkin hanging in his Senate office. Taken from a 2001 discussion with then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney, the napkin has three numbers on it. The top number is 1.6, signifying Cheney's hope for $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, the bottom number is 1.25, signifying $1.25 trillion, and the center number, 1.425, is circled -- Cheney's last hope being that Nelson could get Democrats to agree to that large of a tax cut.

Cheney lost, and the final figure was much closer to Nelson's bottom line.

In past compromise efforts, Nelson often represented the middle ground in a large, bipartisan group.

Lately, no Republicans have been involved in the health-care talks, and Nelson regularly finds himself as the most conservative senator at the table -- certainly the only one with a Cheney memento hanging in his office.

"The process has become so polarized," he told reporters Friday, one of the dozens of interviews he has granted just off the Senate floor in recent days.

If it's possible, Nelson is both a workhorse and a show horse in the Senate. He works hard to find critical compromises but never hesitates to get his message out to the assembled media, ending up literally and figuratively the man in the middle. After a key vote Wednesday, more than two dozen reporters surrounded Nelson, with most unable to hear his retorts to their questions. They shoved their digital recorders over and under colleagues' shoulders and armpits, hoping to capture a snippet of what Nelson had to say. One reporter asked whether, in this scrum, Nelson had already addressed the abortion issue.

"I did," he replied. Then he launched into a several-minute repetition of his position on the issue.

Even if all other issues on the health bill are resolved, abortion remains the hardest for Nelson. Regardless of the wording, he demands one result: no federal abortion funds.

"If I don't get it, I can't support cloture [ending the filibuster] on the next round," he said.

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