To sway Nelson, a hard-won compromise on abortion issue

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Democrats wouldn't even sit in the same room.

At one end of the majority leader's office, Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), the antiabortion senator whose support was crucial to health-care legislation, huddled with White House staff in a conference room. At the other end, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chamber's leading advocates of abortion rights, hunkered as far from Nelson as possible, in the office of Reid's chief of staff.

Shuttling between the two parties Friday afternoon and evening were Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Desperately trying to find a compromise, Schumer put his head in his hands early Friday afternoon. "What are we going to do?" he asked Reid.

But by 10:30 p.m. Friday, a handshake deal sealed a hard-won compromise over abortion. Within minutes senators were on the phone with Obama, who was flying aboard Air Force One, having just forged his compromise with world leaders on global warming, according to senators and aides who participated in the negotiations. "We did it, Mr. President," Reid told Obama.

The deal faced an immediate assault from both ends of the abortion spectrum Saturday morning. The National Organization of Women dubbed it "cruelly over-compromised legislation" and the antiabortion Family Research Council dismissed it as a "phony compromise."

Under the new abortion provisions, states can opt out of allowing plans to cover abortion in the insurance exchanges the bill would set up. The exchanges are designed to serve individuals who lack coverage through their jobs, with most receiving federal subsidies to buy insurance. Enrollees in plans that cover abortion procedures would pay with separate checks -- one for abortion, one for any other health-care services.

This was an effort to comport with the 32-year prohibition against federal funding for abortions, but the Nelson compromise is a softening of the House language, which was written by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). The Stupak amendment forbid any insurer in the exchange "to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion" -- a position that abortion rights advocates suggested would have led to many insurance providers dropping abortion coverage.

"I know this is hard for some of my colleagues to accept. And I appreciate their right to disagree. But I would not have voted for this bill without these provisions," Nelson said Saturday. With 59 members of the Democratic caucus already supporting the entire legislation, Nelson was the last holdout needed to shut down the Republican filibuster.

Some of Nelson's colleagues accused him of using the abortion issue as leverage to get a better reimbursement rate for his state under Medicaid provisions in the legislation. "You've got to compliment Ben Nelson for playing 'The Price Is Right,' " Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said.

Schumer, who spent more than 13 hours in Reid's office Friday, said the Medicaid issue was settled around lunchtime, and the final eight hours of the talks focused on the abortion language. Boxer estimated she spent seven hours in Reid's offices -- without ever once sitting in the same room, even though they were all of 25 steps apart.

Reid and Schumer kept up the "shuttle negotiation" between the leader's conference room and his top aide's office, Boxer said. Keenly aware how tense the talks were, the White House dispatched two aides who together have decades of experience in the Senate -- Jim Messina and Peter Rouse -- to work with Nelson. They relayed their intelligence to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who monitored the talks from a dinner in Georgetown.

Around 8 p.m., everyone took what was supposed to be a short break, but by 9:30 p.m. Nelson had not returned to Reid's office, stoking fear in the Capitol and the White House that the deal was heading south. Reid and Schumer -- who had barely eaten for the past three days of the talks -- gnawed on Christmas cookies in the leader's offices, according to Schumer.

Finally, Nelson was ready to cut the deal, no matter what the antiabortion groups said. No announcement was made because he wanted to see the final language in writing the next day. According to Schumer, he and Reid shook hands with Nelson. Then Reid walked across his office suites to find an anxious Boxer. "We have a deal," he said.

"It was a moment I'll never forget," Boxer recalled Saturday.

Nelson later joined Boxer at her end of Reid's office, greeting the Californian with a big hug.

Staff writers Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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