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Abortion Debate May Complicate Efforts to Overhaul Health Care

The debate over abortion rights is quickly inflaming an already intense argument over health care reform on Capitol Hill

On Thursday, an innocuous procedural vote on the House floor revealed just how incendiary the issue can get.

The House leadership struggled to approve a procedural measure that would clear the way for lawmakers to debate a financial services spending bill because it contained a provision which would allow Washington to raise local funds for abortions.

The House must first approve a "rule" which establishes the guidelines for considering legislation on the floor, usually a non-controversial exercise. 

But a number of moderate Democrats who oppose abortion nearly torpedoed the annual spending bill before it got to the floor by voting no on the rule.

Congress currently bans federal dollars for abortions and Capitol Hill has ultimate jurisdiction over the District of Columbia.

The first vote defeated the spending bill, 215-214. But Democratic leaders scrambled to find lawmakers to change their vote, prompting Republicans to scream from the back of the chamber, "Shame, shame, shame!"

A few Democrats finally flipped their votes and the House brought up the financial services package.

But more importantly, the incident was a shot across the bow to Democratic congressional leaders now cobbling together a health care reform package. They know anti-abortion lawmakers will oppose any health care bill that could lead to an increase in abortions or grant latitude to local governments to potentially spend federal dollars for family planning services. "

It should be a signal," lamented Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a moderate anti-abortion lawmaker. "They try to continue to ignore valid concerns by members. We are not going to roll over just because the title of the bill is 'health care.'"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dodged a reporter's question about the abortion factor at her weekly press conference. Pelosi only said that "all of these issues will be worked out through the legislative process."

But that didn't seem to satisfy Stupak. He and other fiscally-conscious Democrats known as the "Blue Dogs" also worry about significant tax increases for the wealthy to pay for health reform. And they've warned leadership of their concerns about the cost of the bill."

"They are hauling us to the woodshed quite a bit," Stupak said.