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Showdown Over Abortion Looms in Senate

Sen. Nelson with reporters

Nov. 3: Sen. Ben. Nelson talks to reporters about health care on Capitol Hill. (AP)

WASHINGTON -- Senators debating health care legislation are headed for a clash over abortion, the issue that threatened to derail the bill in the House.

Anticipating the showdown, hundreds of abortion rights supporters gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday to call on senators to keep new abortion restrictions out of the health care bill. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., plans to unveil an anti-abortion amendment as early as Thursday that abortion rights supporters inside the Senate and out say they can't support.

Nelson says he won't vote for the underlying bill without his strong abortion language. But opponents say his amendment doesn't have the votes to pass. The outcome could be critical in determining the fate of President Barack Obama's signature health overhaul agenda.

At issue is how abortions would be handled in the health care bills. In the House, a bloc of anti-abortion Democrats forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to accept restrictions that outraged liberals as the price for passing the Democratic health care bill last month.

The language passed by the House would forbid any health plan that receives federal subsidies from paying for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life. A new government insurance plan couldn't offer abortions, and women would have to purchase separate coverage for abortion services.

Behind the scenes, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who opposes abortions but wants to vote for the overall health care bill, has been working to find language that could satisfy both sides.

"Our goal is to maintain essentially Hyde-like protections that prevent federal funds from being used to pay for and subsidize abortion," Casey's communications director Larry Smar said Wednesday, referring to the existing law on abortion, though nothing had been finalized.

Efforts to find such a common ground failed in the House.

Women's rights groups were caught off-guard by the provision that passed the House and are now vowing to keep similar language out of the Senate bill. Hundreds of activists organized by Planned Parenthood and other groups rallied Wednesday, holding signs reading "Listen up senators: Women's health is not negotiable."

Several House Democrats spoke, vowing to oppose final passage of any health bill with the tough abortion restrictions already approved by the House. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., called it "a devil's bargain" that she couldn't accept.

But the House language is just what Nelson wants to include in the Senate bill. He is not satisfied with the language filed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., which would forbid including abortion coverage as a required medical benefit, but would allow a new government insurance plan to cover abortions and let private insurers that receive federal subsidies offer plans that include abortion coverage.

The money to pay for abortions would have to come from premiums paid by beneficiaries themselves, kept strictly separate from federal subsidy dollars. Supporters say that would keep government funds from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother as allowed under a current law known as the Hyde amendment.

Abortion opponents say Reid's bill circumvents Hyde. For example, they say that any funds a government insurance plan would use to pay for abortion would be federal funds by definition -- even if the money comes from premiums paid by beneficiaries.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said after addressing the crowd that she didn't think Nelson had the votes to prevail, though she stopped short of saying she'd oppose the overall legislation if it included Nelson's language. Reid controls 60 votes, the exact number needed to advance legislation in the 100-member Senate, so he has no room for error.

Boxer told activists at the rally that the anti-abortion amendment adopted by the House amounted to "the biggest rollback in a woman's right to choose in three decades."