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House Panel OKs Anti-Abortion Provision

A House committee gave abortion opponents a victory Wednesday, voting to making it easier for hospitals, health insurers and others to refuse to provide or cover abortions.

The Republican-run House Appropriations Committee (search) added the provision to a massive spending bill by voice vote after abortion-rights lawmakers led by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., concluded they lacked the votes to block it. The language would bar any of the bill's funds from going to federal, state or local agencies that act against health care providers or insurers because they do not provide abortions, make abortion referrals or cover them.

"This is an issue of conscience," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., a doctor who sponsored the language.

His amendment was added to a bill providing $142.5 billion next year for health, education and labor programs. That total reflects a $3.1 billion, or 2 percent, increase over this year's spending. The committee approved the overall bill by voice vote, sending it to the full House.

The fate of the abortion provision in the Senate is unclear. That chamber has long been more inclined toward abortion rights than the House.

Weldon said his provision was simply a refinement of decades-old restrictions against federal aid for most abortions. But abortion-rights advocates said the language represented a major change in current policy.

Lowey told reporters after the vote that the measure would effectively place a "gag rule" on doctors and health care providers.

Many clinics and other providers, in exchange for receiving federal funds, are required to at least tell pregnant women who do not wish to have a child that abortion is among their options. The Weldon language would make it harder for the government to enforce that, Lowey said.

The provision "would allow health insurers to ignore laws about patient information and gag rules because they want to cut costs or benefits, or for no reason at all," Lowey said.

Weldon said his amendment would make it harder for governments to sue insurance companies that refuse to cover abortions. It also would make it more difficult for local governments to block a religious hospital chain from acquiring a hospital that has been providing abortions but would no longer do so, he said.

He told reporters the White House supported his provision.

Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee's (search) chief lobbyist, said the language would "prevent state and local governments from forcing health care providers to participate in abortion."

Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president for NARAL Pro-Choice America (search), said the measure would have a chilling effect on hospitals, clinics and other providers of health care, saying, "They could opt out of a range of women's health care services for reasons like political pressure, and that's unfortunate."

In other action on the bill, the committee voted:

— By voice to forbid the agency that oversees Medicare from impeding Congress from receiving information from Medicare. The provision follows last year's episode in which Thomas Scully, then the Bush administration's Medicare chief, threatened to fire the agency's top actuary if he shared with lawmakers his higher cost estimates for prescription drug legislation.

— 35-27 to block the administration from requiring health care providers to conduct annual tests on respirators their workers use to prevent tuberculosis.

— By a party-line 31-29 to kill a Democratic effort to block new Bush administration overtime rules that they said would bar millions of workers from getting premium pay for extra hours of work.

The bill would boost spending for low-income school districts, education for the disabled and the National Institutes of Health. Democrats said the increases were too stingy.