Democratic leaders working to win over abortion opponents for health-care reform

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who leads the abortion opposition, said he might not support health-care reform.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who leads the abortion opposition, said he might not support health-care reform. (Harry Hamburg - AP)
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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

As President Obama makes his final plea for a health-care overhaul, Democratic leaders in Congress are embarking on a delicate strategy to win over abortion opponents, a gambit that could determine whether the legislation becomes law.

The effort depends on convincing as many as a dozen antiabortion Democrats in the House that abortion language in the Senate bill is more stringent than initially portrayed. But Democratic leaders must be careful that they don't drive away abortion rights supporters who are increasingly concerned that the measure would prove severely restrictive.

"It's going to be a heavy lift, because people on both sides don't like" the language, said Kristen Day, director of Democrats for Life of America, an antiabortion group that otherwise supports health-care reform. "It's a difficult situation right now."

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the head of the antiabortion contingent, has repeatedly reaffirmed his opposition to the Senate terms, saying that House leaders have all but given up on his vote. "Some people are saying we have to vote for the Senate bill. That ain't going to happen," he said in an interview this week.

But congressional leaders are still working behind the scenes to try to persuade some in the Stupak group. If the leadership loses antiabortion members, most of them Midwestern Roman Catholics who otherwise support the legislation, the only way to compensate would be to add votes from conservative Democrats who previously opposed the measure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed confidence Thursday that resistance from antiabortion members could be overcome. "When people think there isn't going to be a bill, they can take whatever position they want," she said. "But now they know there is going to be a bill, and these members are saying, 'Let's talk.' "

The leadership has two choices: It can try to revise the Senate language, which would be all but impossible under the process Democrats are using to pass a final bill, or it can try to convince some abortion opponents that the provisions are acceptable.

Underlying the controversy is the question of whether the Senate language -- agreed to in a last-minute deal with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) -- maintains the 33-year-old ban on federal funding for abortion. The bill would allow the procedure to be covered in plans offered on new "exchanges" in which people without employer-based coverage would buy insurance with the help of federal subsidies.

But it would require buyers to make two premium payments -- one for most of their coverage and a second, far smaller one for abortion coverage. Everyone with such a plan -- even men or older women -- would need to make both payments.

Opponents have said that would not go far enough to keep federal money from subsidizing abortion. Democratic leaders disagree, saying it maintains the status quo.

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates have grown increasingly convinced that the language would restrict the reach of abortion coverage nearly as much as the Stupak language in the House bill passed in December. That measure would have forced those who want abortion coverage to buy it in a rider.

Abortion rights groups and health-care analysts now are predicting that, under the Senate language, few plans would cover abortion because the requirement of two payments would be cumbersome for insurers and objectionable to customers.

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