Buckle your seatbelts, the ride starts now. If you've been tuning out the health care debate on the Senate floor so far, we don't blame you. It's been a little senatorial. But if you've been waiting for tempers to start flaring, you might want to start paying attention now.
The Senate has officially begun debate on an abortion amendment, and tentatively plans to vote on it tomorrow. How the Senate handles it could be key to the fate of the whole health bill.
Monday afternoon, Democratic Senator of Nebraska Ben Nelson, introduced an amendment that would prevent private insurers who participate in the new insurance marketplaces called "exchanges" from offering abortion coverage to women who get public subsidies. The wording of the amendment looks similar to the one offered by Democratic Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, and accepted into the House version of the bill. It caused major rifts among Democrats.
The Nelson amendment is sponsored by just one other Democrat, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, plus seven Republicans.
Over on the House side, Stupak's amendment passed in the eleventh hour in the House, garnering just enough support for the bill to pass.
The Senate might be another story. They've started debate today, but most experts don't expect it to pass. So why bring it up? Bargaining chips. The more yes votes for the amendment, the trickier it will be for abortion rights advocates to knock out the language when the bill gets married up with the House version in a conference.
Nelson has threatened to filibuster any bill that doesn't include this provision, blocking it from moving forward, but liberals are not keen on voting for a bill that includes his language. Even if he doesn't end up filibustering, Nelson's statement on the floor made it clear that he will not support legislation without anti-abortion language, and losing the support of even one Democrat could severely complicate reaching that magical 60 votes that the bill would need to pass.
The script isn't fully written, though. Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, is painting it as a women's issue. And Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins support abortion rights and are being seriously wooed to support the broader bill.