STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today, President Obama offers more details on his health-care proposal. He's still hoping to get an overhaul through Congress. As if powerful industries, dubious voters and unanimous Republican opposition were not enough, the president has to massage one more issue: The politics of abortion still threaten the whole effort. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: Abortion is such a politically hazardous issue that sponsors of both the House and Senate health bills have said their object was to maintain the status quo.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): It is not the intention of this bill to change the policy that has been in place for three decades.
ROVNER: That was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer yesterday on the subject of abortion. The policy he was referring to is known as the Hyde Amendment. It's barred federal funds from being used to pay for abortions since 1977.
But keeping the health bills abortion-neutral has proved impossible. The bill the House passed in November barred abortion funding in programs directly funded by the federal government. But it also banned it in private insurance plans that cover abortion if those plans are federally subsidized.
Jessica Arons is with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. She says the problem with the House bill is that it would roll back coverage for abortion many women now have in private insurance.
Ms. JESSICA ARONS (Center for American Progress): Anyone receiving a subsidy for their premium from the government would not be allowed to choose a plan that includes abortion, and that would apply to about 85 percent of people participating in the exchange.
ROVNER: The exchange is the new insurance marketplace the bills would create. The bill passed by the Senate in December, however, doesn't go quite as far, but it's even more confusing. It, too, would bar most direct federal funding of abortion. But it would let private plans cover abortions if people are willing to write a separate check each month for that coverage. That's something abortion-rights groups find really distasteful, says Arons.
Ms. ARONS: And I think that some of the language is not just intended to wall off public money from paying for abortion services. It's actually intended to stigmatize abortion and treat it as something other than health care, and discourage people from choosing health insurance plans that offer abortion coverage.
ROVNER: But while abortion-rights groups may not like the Senate bill, pro-life groups downright hate it. Douglas Johnson is with the National Right to Life Committee.
Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (National Right to Life Committee): The Senate bill is the most pro-abortion, single piece of legislation ever to reach the floor of the House of Representatives. The so-called abortion limits that are in the Senate bill are all very narrow, loophole-ridden, or booby-trapped to expire.
ROVNER: As a result, says Johnson...
Mr. JOHNSON: No member of the House of Representatives who is pro-life, or who wishes to have a record against federal funding of abortion, could possibly vote for the Senate bill.
ROVNER: That's important because National Right to Life's vote rankings are closely watched by voters and lawmakers. And that raises a big, red flag for leaders in both houses, because the way Democrats are hoping to finish work on their health overhaul is for the House to pass the Senate's bill, abortion language and all.
Then they plan to pass a second bill that will incorporate a number of compromises between the House and Senate. For that, they'll use the so-called budget reconciliation process that only requires 51 Senate votes. But as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged yesterday, those compromises probably won't include a change in abortion language.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): In order to be in part of the budget bill, it has to be central to the budget. That's the rule. It's a very strict rule, and it's a discipline.
ROVNER: Which means anti-abortion House Democrats who originally voted for the House health bill will likely face this choice: Vote for a Senate bill that's more lenient on abortion, or vote against health overhaul.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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