The Nitty-Gritty of the Senate Abortion Amendments (King Herod Aside)

Via Brian Beutler at TPMDC, the Associated Press is reporting that the coveted vote of Nebraska’s Ben Nelson for health care reform might be lost over abortion language. Nelson’s Stupak-like amendment was rejected by the Senate last week. To win Nelson’s approval, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) reportedly proposed a compromise amendment which Nelson says “doesn’t get to the fundamental issue of barring federal funding for abortions.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had written a letter to Senators on Monday, arguing that anything short of Stupak-type language (barring federal money from subsidizing premiums paid to insurance plans which cover abortion services) would not get their support. Bishop Daniel DiNardo, chair of the USCCB’s committee on pro-life activities, insisted that since the Senate voted to extend the principle of the Hyde amendment (which prohibits federal funds from directly paying for an abortion) in appropriations bills, then it should extend that same principle to health care. (Such language is already in the Senate health care bill; Nelson’s failed amendment attempted to extend Hyde to be even more restrictive). Just as the bishops pressured the House to include the Stupak amendment when the House bill adequately incorporated Hyde, they are pressuring the Senate to include Nelson’s.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported, Richard M. Doerflinger, a USCCB spokesperson on abortion, “said that the bishops appreciated the goals of some of Mr. Casey’s proposals, but that none of the proposals addressed the fundamental concern of the use of taxpayer money to subsidize insurance that includes coverage of abortion.” That’s the rub: Hyde only prohibits the direct taxpayer funding of abortion via Medicaid (and other federal programs such as the military, as Kathryn Joyce explored here this week). The bishops are claiming that in the health care reform context, that means that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize premiums paid to any insurance plan that covers abortion. That’s not applying Hyde, that’s extending Hyde into a completely new area. But the bishops insist they’re merely maintaining “abortion neutrality.”

But it’s not just the bishops that are pressuring Nelson. As I reported this morning, a panoply of religious right groups are ramping up pressure on Senators, portraying a vote for health care without the Nelson amendment as a dire threat to Christianity and the republic. The National Right to Life Committee called the proposed Casey language “an exercise is cosmetics – like putting lipstick on a legislative warthog.” The Susan B. Anthony List is running an ad against Casey in Pennsylvania, entitled, “Who Shall Live?” The narration ominously warns that Casey is “poised to vote in the Senate for a health care bill with federal funding for abortion. The bill will result in more abortions— abortions that Americans will be required to finance. Senator Casey, trading the lives of unborn children for a health care bill is inconsistent with our American character.”

Regardless of which — or which combination — of tactics are scaring Nelson off of potentially being the 60th vote to break the Republicans’ filibuster of the health care reform bill, it’s clear he’s looking for cover under the cloak of “pro-life” righteousness. While it may end up being a moot point, as progressives fight over the bill stripped of a public option (which Nelson also opposed), the abortion language might just well be a convenient out for Nelson, allowing him to retain the blessing of the  flag-waving theocrats, while voting against a bill he never intended to vote for in the first place.