NPR logo
Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120602688/120602830" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language

Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language

Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120602688/120602830" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) i

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) says of the Senate bill wording: "The abortion language would not be the language that I would write ... but I do think that this is a sensible position that we could accept." Robert Giroux/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Robert Giroux/Getty Images
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) says of the Senate bill wording: "The abortion language would not be the language that I would write ... but I do think that this is a sensible position that we could accept."

Robert Giroux/Getty Images

The fight over health care has moved to the Senate, bringing with it the fight over abortion. Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that would ban federal funding of abortion, but most Democrats say it went too far. Now all eyes are on the Senate to see if its version of the health care bill can strike a compromise.

The truth is that no one in the House or Senate is trying to score a big win on abortion. In fact, just about any lawmaker will tell you that if this health care overhaul is going to pass, it shouldn't tinker with current abortion policy at all.

That means it should maintain the fragile truce, of sorts, that lawmakers have had on abortion for decades: the Hyde Amendment. Named after the man who authored it in the 1970s, it states that no federal taxpayer funds should go to pay for abortions, expect in specific cases.

What everyone is fighting about tooth and nail is exactly how to write that into the new bill.

First, there was the Capps language, authored by Democrat Lois Capps of California, which stated that insurance companies could cover abortion but couldn't pay for it using money from a federal subsidy. Instead, they'd have to use premiums or copays.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said they thought they'd solved the issue.

"We thought in the House we put forward a good proposal that the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan entity, said that we achieved the goal that we all share, of making sure that public funds do not go to abortion," Van Hollen said.

But the language didn't fly. Anti-abortion Democrats said it would encourage private companies to use a simple accounting trick to make public money look like private money and then use it to pay for elective abortions. That's not what's in current law, they said.

Enter the man whose name has become synonymous with the idea of a "pro-life Democrat": Bart Stupak of Michigan. He worked with representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to create the Stupak amendment — a stronger, more restrictive policy that would ban abortions from a public option and from private plans offered to people who get help from the government to pay for their health care.

That amendment passed the House, with the votes of all Republicans and a few dozen conservative Democrats. But it became clear pretty quickly that the language wasn't going to work in the Senate.

Democrats who support abortion rights said the Stupak language would put such a regulatory burden on private insurers that cover abortion that they would stop. And for the first time, private citizens would be blocked from obtaining a legal medical procedure.

That's not what's in current law either, they said.

So that's how we got to now and the Senate version of the health care bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled this week. Its abortion language is much closer to House Democrats' original version — the Capps language. But it has a few tweaks, including a mandate that the secretary of health and human services ensure no federal funds are used for abortion.

This appears to be a little closer to that balance everyone is trying to achieve.

"I feel very good about this, because it truly is a firewall. It truly keeps this contentious issue the way it's been for decades," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) also approved: "The abortion language would not be the language that I would write and might not be the language that Bart Stupak would write, but I do think that this is a sensible position that we could accept."

Senate Republicans think the new language doesn't go far enough, and Mike Johanns of Nebraska said they probably won't be able to change it.

"I just think that the chance of any kind of amendment passing that would change the dynamic here is really nonexistent, it just won't happen," Johanns said. "This is the vote."

What Johanns means by "this is the vote" is that the Senate health care bill, which faces a key test vote Saturday, should be completely blocked at the first opportunity.

But Johanns' or any other Republican's vote is beside the point. It's the anti-abortion Democrats whose opinions could make or break the whole process of health care legislation. And they haven't tipped their hand about what they think of the new Senate language.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.