Abortion Language Still Sticking Point For Health Bill

President Obama is delaying his trip to Asia and the Pacific next week to stay in Washington to help twist arms to get a health care bill through the House. House leaders will need his help, because several issues are still threatening passage of the President's top domestic priority.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dashed the hopes of many House Democrats Friday, when she confirmed what many already knew. A final health overhaul package will not include a government-sponsored public plan as one option.

"I'm quite sad that a public option isn't in there," she said at her weekly news conference. "but...it isn't in there because they don't have the votes to have it in there."

They, of course, being the U.S. Senate. As part of the delicate end-game for the health overhaul, the House has to pass the bill the Senate passed in December bill as step one of a two step process. A second bill will contain the changes to the Senate bill now being negotiated between House and Senate Democrats and the White House. That's also the bill that will be passed through the so-called budget reconciliation process.

So far, House Democrats seem pretty satisfied with what the President has proposed for that second bill. "We're pretty much in line with what the president asked," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

But there's one issue, Waxman conceded, where Democrats are very much not in line: abortion. "Ironically, what we have is a situation on abortion which neither side is now particularly happy about," he said.

That's because language in the Senate bill is being interpreted very differently by those on opposite sides of the abortion divide.

Abortion opponents, led in the House by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., say the Senate bill would loosen current restrictions on abortion funding. He cites specific language on specific pages, "which basically says that your federal tax subsidies can be used to pay for abortion coverage. That's contrary to current federal law."

For example, Stupak says, the language gives federal officials discretion to allow abortion funding in the future. And Stupak says he has as many as a dozen other Democrats who oppose abortion-rights who won't vote for the Senate bill unless their concerns are addressed.

But abortion-rights supporters, like Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., say Stupak's interpretation is simply wrong.

"I don't know why he persists in saying that somehow the Senate bill allows for federal funding of abortion," Schakowsky says. "It does not."

Schakowsky and her allies, meanwhile, have their own problems with the Senate bill. Specifically, the requirement that people who enroll in private health plans that cover abortion write two separate checks every month; one for abortion coverage and one for all other services. She says insurance companies simply won't participate. "It's just absolutely unworkable...they will not do it."

So who's right? Mostly the problem is a lack of trust. For example, the bill provides community health centers with an additional $7 billion. Abortion opponents say because the money doesn't flow through a regular spending bill it wouldn't be subject to the same abortion restrictions as all other community health center funding. Some sponsors of the bill say that's nonsense; others say it's a drafting error that can be easily corrected.

The problem is, Schakowsky acknowledged, "we aren't going to be able to change, it looks like, through reconciliation."

That's true for those on both sides of the issue. Abortion is something that's outside the boundaries of what can be included in this type of budget bill. So both sides can either swallow the Senate bill's current abortion language or kill the entire health overhaul effort.

Although for now, it seems Democratic leaders think they can pass the Senate bill even without the backing of the anti-abortion House votes.

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