Buoyed by a presidential pep talk and intense rounds of negotiations, Senate Democrats hope to move closer to embracing a major health care bill this week by tackling the nettlesome issue of abortion.
Anti-abortion lawmakers in both parties have insisted that taxpayer funds not be used to pay for abortions in government-run health programs. But some liberals say proposed restrictions go too far by barring federally subsidized health insurance plans from covering abortion even if the procedures were entirely paid for with customers’ premiums.
That’s the language the House adopted last month, angering liberal groups. A prominent anti-abortion Democratic senator, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, plans to urge the Senate to follow suit.
The Senate was to begin debate on Nelson’s amendment, reflecting the House language, on Monday, although the senator said he doesn’t expect a vote before Tuesday. The amendment appeared unlikely to gain the necessary 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, according to numerous lawmakers.
Democratic leaders hope to soften the House’s tougher language in eventual House-Senate negotiations designed to send a bill to President Barack Obama’s desk.
In a rare visit to the Capitol on Sunday, Obama urged Senate Democrats to make history by overhauling the nation’s health care system, even if some of them might face angry voters. He stuck to general themes in his 45-minute closed-door speech and did not dwell on specific topics such as abortion.
The Senate bill would cover more than 30 million additional Americans over the next decade with a new requirement for nearly everyone to buy insurance. The federal-state Medicaid program for the poor would be expanded, and there would be a ban on unpopular insurance company practices such as denying coverage based on medical history.
It would create marketplaces where people could shop for and compare insurance plans. Lower-income people would get subsidies to help them buy coverage.
A government-run insurance program, or “public option,” is one of the bill’s most contentious issues. At the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a group of moderate and liberal Senate Democrats met again Sunday to seek a compromise, after Obama’s pep talk.
One idea calls for national nonprofit insurance plans to be administered by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the popular Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
The proposal seems to appeal to a key Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who met with Obama at the White House on Saturday.
On Sunday, Snowe called the possible compromise “a positive development” because it would give consumers more options for buying insurance.
Snowe’s potential support for the Democratic-crafted bill is crucial. Supporters need 60 votes to overcome filibusters, and the chamber’s 40 Republicans hope to draw at least one Democrat to their side.
It could be Nelson, who says he will not support final passage of a health care bill unless it includes the tight abortion restrictions he wants. If so, Democrats would have to woo moderate Republicans such as Snowe.
Nelson’s amendment would restrict abortion coverage to cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is in danger. The Senate bill now would allow insurance plans operating in a new federally supervised health insurance marketplace to cover abortion, provided they use only funds from premiums paid by beneficiaries.
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