Harry Reid and the Democrats needed 60 votes in the Senate to pass their overhaul of health care legislation in the face of united Republican opposition.
They got it.
Today, after hours — and hours — of negotiations, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he's on board. Nelson, a strong abortion opponent, had offered an amendment to the Senate bill last month that would forbid anyone who took federal subsidies for health care to use it to pay for abortion; a similar amendment, put forward by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, is in the House version. But Nelson's amendment failed, and he indicated he would not sign on to the bill.
Until now. Here's the New York Times' account of what brought Nelson around:
Mr. Reid's amendment includes tighter restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions sought by Mr. Nelson. Health insurance plans would not be required or forbidden to cover abortions, but states could prohibit the coverage of abortions by plans that are offered for sale through new government-regulated marketplaces.
The amendment also includes a special extension solely for Nebraska: increased federal contributions to the cost of an expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for the poor.
While there was plenty of snow falling in Washington, there was no Snowe for the health care bill. Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who had been the subject of a lobbying campaign by Democrats to get at least one Republican to vote for the bill, said she would not.
President Obama said today he was delighted with the latest development:
It now appears that the American people will have the vote they deserve on genuine reform that offers security to those who have health insurance and affordable options to those for do not. And so I want to thank Senator Harry Reid and every senator who's been working around the clock to make this happen.
There's still much work left to be done, but not a lot of time left to do it. But today is a major step forward for the American people. After a nearly century long struggle we are on the cusp of making health care reform a reality in the United States of America.
As with any legislation, compromise is part of the process. But I'm pleased that recently added amendments have made this landmark bill even stronger. Between the time the bill passes and the time when the insurance exchange gets up and running there will now be penalties for insurance companies that arbitrarily jack up rates on consumers. And while insurance companies will be prevented from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions once the exchange is open, in the meantime there will be a high risk pool where people with pre-existing conditions can purchase affordable coverage.
But the Family Research Council, a pro-life organization, blasted the abortion language in the bill:
The new language is being trumpeted as including an opt-out provision that actually makes the opt-out provision in the original bill worse by requiring the state to either cover all abortions or opt out of all abortions. This will make it difficult for states that currently include exceptions for life, rape, and incest. This so-called "compromise" language makes it more likely that these states will cover all abortions. Moreover, there is no individual opt-out ensuring that everyone in the plans would pay for other people's abortions. In contrast to the Nelson-Hatch-Casey Amendment, this new language undermines the principles of the Hyde Amendment.
FRC President Tony Perkins said the bill "will set up the federal government as being brokers for the abortion industry. No Senator or organization can call themselves pro-life if they support such language."
And the National Right to Life Committee's Douglas Johnson offered a warning:
The new abortion language solves none of the fundamental abortion-related problems with the Senate bill, and it actually creates some new abortion-related problems.
NRLC will score the upcoming roll call votes on cloture on the Reid manager's amendment, and on the underlying bill, as votes in favor of legislation to allow the federal government to subsidize private insurance plans that cover abortion on demand, to oversee multi-state plans that cover elective abortions, and to empower federal officials to mandate that private health plans cover abortions even if they do not accept subsidized enrollees, among other problems.
In addition, if the final bill produced by a House-Senate conference committee does not contain the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, NRLC will score the House and Senate votes on the conference report as votes to allow federal mandates and subsidies for coverage of elective abortion. Unless the Stupak-Pitts Amendment is included in the final bill, and the new pro-abortion provisions dropped, a significant number of House members who voted for H.R. 3962 will not vote to pass the final legislation.
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards saw it differently:
Planned Parenthood strongly opposes the new abortion language offered by Senator Ben Nelson in the manager's amendment. Last week, the Senate rejected harsh restrictions on abortion coverage, and it is a sad day when women's health is traded away for one vote.
The Nelson language is essentially an abortion rider. It creates an unworkable system whereby individuals are required to write two separate checks each month, one for abortion care and one for everything else. There is no sound policy reason to require women to pay separately for their abortion coverage other than to try to shame them and draw attention to the abortion coverage. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that insurance companies will be willing to follow such an administratively cumbersome system, leaving tens of millions of women without abortion coverage.
After the passage of the Stupak amendment in the House, we heard loud and clear from women across the country that they will not stand for the undermining of their rights and their access to benefits. This Nelson abortion check provision will no doubt create the same outrage, as women learn that they are being made second-class citizens when it comes to health care coverage.
As many members of Congress and the president believe, Planned Parenthood does not think that health care reform is the forum to litigate abortion policy. Unfortunately, opponents continue to use abortion as a political wedge at every step of the reform process.
There is no policy reason for this action, it is simply a political maneuver. We understand that leaders in the Senate and the White House want to move the process forward, but given this provision, we have no choice but to oppose the Senate bill. Planned Parenthood will now work with leaders to fix the abortion coverage language in conference.