Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language The fight over health care has moved to the Senate, and that means the fight over abortion is there as well. Earlier this month, the House passed legislation that would ban federal funding of abortion, but most Democrats say it went too far. Can the Senate's version find a compromise?
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Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language

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Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language

Senate Tries To Strike Balance On Abortion Language

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The fight over an overhaul on health care is now in the Senate, and that means the emotive question of abortion will be debated there as well. Democrats in the House struggled with the language over abortion before they passed their bill, and now the Senate faces the same challenge in trying to strike a compromise.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The truth is, no one in the House or Senate is trying to score a big win on abortion. In fact, ask anyone and they'll tell you that if this health care overhaul is going to pass, it shouldn't tinker with current abortion policy at all.

And that means it should maintain the extremely delicate truce, of sorts, that lawmakers have had on abortion for decades. That is that no federal taxpayer funds should go to pay for abortions - that's called the Hyde amendment, after the man who authored it in the 1970s.

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

First, there was the Capps language, authored by Democrat Lois Capps of California. Under that, insurance companies could cover abortion but could not pay for it using money that came from a federal subsidy. They'd have to use premiums or co-pays.

Maryland's Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Democratic House leadership, said they thought they'd solved the issue.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): We thought, in the House, we had put forward a good proposal that the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan entity, said that we achieved the goal, which we all share, of making sure that public funds do not go to abortion.

SEABROOK: But it didn't fly. Anti-abortion Democrats said the language would encourage private companies to use a simple trick of accounting to make public money look like private money and then pay for elective abortions with that. 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 build the Stupak amendment � a stronger, more restrictive policy that would ban abortions from the public option and from private plans offered to people who get help from the government to pay for their health care. That passed with the votes of all Republicans and a few dozen conservative Democrats.

But it became clear, pretty quickly, that 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 just wouldn't, 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 Democratic Leader Harry Reid unveiled this week. Its abortion language is much closer to House Democrats' original version - the Capps language, with a few tweaks, including a new responsibility for the secretary of Health and Human Services, that he or she ensure that no federal funds are used for abortion.

This appears to be a little closer to that balance everyone is trying to achieve - at least California's Barbara Boxer thinks so.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): I feel very good about this, because it truly is a firewall. It truly keeps, you know, this contentious issue the way it's been for decades.

SEABROOK: And Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski thinks so too.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): 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.

SEABROOK: Now, Republicans immediately responded, saying the new language doesn't go far enough, and Nebraska's Mike Johanns said they probably wouldn't be able to change it.

Senator MIKE JOHANNS (Republican, Nebraska): 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. This is the vote.

SEABROOK: What Johanns means by saying - this is the vote - is that the Senate health care bill should be completely blocked at the first opportunity.

But really, politically, Johanns' vote is not the point, neither is any other Republicans'. Again, it's the anti-abortion Democrats whose opinions could make or break the whole process of health care process and they haven't said yet what they think of the new Senate language.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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