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Next Steps for the Stupak Abortion Amendment

November 9, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The House’s passage of the health care bill on Saturday was a big deal, but it was mostly expected. The real new is the Stupak abortion amendment that was tacked onto the bill by conservative Democrats to block anyone using government subsidies to buy insurance from buying a plan that covers abortions, even if the abortion coverage is paid for completely with private premiums. Pro-choice activists are calling it a monumental setback for abortion access.

The Democratic leadership decided to allow a vote on the amendment after a group of about 40 pro-life Democrats threatened to derail the whole health care bill. It was approved by a vote of 240-194, with 64 Democrats joining every single House Republican voting in favor.

The issue now moves to the Senate. Both of the health care reform bills that currently exist in the Senate deal with the abortion issue the same way that the House bill did before it was changed by the Stupak amendment. They both require government-provided “affordability credits” to be segregated from individually paid premiums so that they can ensure that federal funds are not used for abortion coverage. The bills direct the Health Choices Commissioner to determine, on an actuarial basis, the average cost of abortion coverage, and would only allow people using “affordability credits” to buy a plan that covers abortions if they are paying for enough of the plan with their own money to fully cover the cost of the abortion coverage portion. This arrangement basically maintains the status quo by neither requiring nor banning private insurers from offering abortion coverage as long as it isn’t being financed with federal money.

But the New York Times is reporting that some Democrats in the Senate are now pushing to add the Stupak amendment to their bill. The Times names Sen. Bob Casey [D, PA] and Sen. Ben Nelson [D, NE] as being behind the push, adding that “senior Senate Democratic aides said the outcome was too close to call.”

A further indication that the Stupak amendment may be added to the Senate bill came from Sen. Claire McCaskill [D, MO] today who said she didn’t think the Stupak amendment would cause the bill to fail. “Obviously, I have been a pro-choice candidate for my entire political career, and obviously there is controversy always surrounding this issue. But we are talking about whether or not people that get public money can buy an insurance policy that has a coverage for abortion. And that is not the majority of America. The majority of America is not going to be getting subsidies from the government,” she said.

The Stupak amendment’s best chance for inclusion in the Senate bill is for it to be added to the merged bill that will be brought to the floor by Senate Democratic leaders for debate. If it were presented as a floor amendment, it would be filibustered by the Democrats and would require 20 Democrats to break from their party and vote with the Republicans to get it passed. There almost certainly are not 20 Democrats in the Senate who support amendment. If it’s included in the underlying bill, it likely would not cause any liberal Democrats to vote “no” on passing the whole bill. It didn’t lose any Democratic votes for the bill in the House.

Despite all the signs that the Stupak amendment will be included in the health care bills that pass both the Senate and the House bill, there are also signs that it could be stripped in the final blended bill. House chief deputy whip Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz [D, FL-20] said today that she was “confident” it would be taken out by the conference committee. The final blended version that is produced by the conference committee will need to be approved once again by both the Senate and the House.

Forty-one House Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] this morning pledging to vote against the final health care bill if it includes the amendment — enough to cause the bill to fail. “[The Stupak amendment] represents an unprecedented and unacceptable restriction on women’s ability to access the full range of reproductive health services to which they are lawfully entitled,” they wrote in the letter. “We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women’s right to choose any further than current law.”

UPDATE: President Obama weighed in on the issue Monday night:

“I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill,” Obama said. “And we’re not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions.”

Saying the bill cannot change the status quo regarding the ban on federal funding for abortions, the President said, “there are strong feelings on both sides” about an amendment passed Saturday and added to the legislation, “and what that tells me is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we’re not changing the status quo.”


“I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test — that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices,” he said.
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