With Health Care Reform At Stake, Dems Map Out Perilous Way Forward On Abortion

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Pro-choice House members are reaching out to certain pro-life Democrats and co-ordinating with members of the Senate ahead of a potential clash over abortion that threatens to kill far-reaching health care legislation.

At her weekly press conference this morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’s not worried that divisions among Democrats over abortion will imperil the push for reform. “I think that will be worked out,” she said.

The House health care bill includes a provision–known as the Stupak amendment–that would prevent millions of people from buying insurance policies that cover abortion. The Stupak amendment was adopted at the last minute, when a group of Democrats joined with the Republican party in a threat to kill the whole reform bill if the adoption language wasn’t added to it. The Senate bill contains much more neutral abortion language, but one Democrat–Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE)–has in the past threatened to filibuster the bill if Stupak-like language isn’t included in the bill.On the one hand, it seems possible that if pro-choice Democrats win, and strip restrictive abortion language from the final health care bill, pro-lifers could blow up the months long reform effort. And at the same time, if the language is maintained to placate pro-life members, pro-choice members in both the House and Senate could do the same.

That’s treacherous terrain, and reaching safe ground will take some nimble footwork. Pelosi declined to elaborate on just how she and other Democrats plan to navigate, but a keyed in House Democratic aide says pro-choice Democrats are making their move.

The first question is: What will Harry Reid do?

“We’re working with our partners on the Senate side,” the aide said, “to protect the language that’s in the Senate bill now.”

According to the aide, “Reid has sort of left the door open for further compromises. We’re closely monitoring that to make sure that any further compromises…don’t radically upset the balance” in the underlying Senate bill.

Reid is expected to introduce major changes to his bill in the coming days in the form of a “manager’s amendment,” and there’s some concern that, to reach 60 votes, he’ll tighten the abortion language in his bill in a way that makes it unacceptable to pro-choice Dems in the House.

“What needs to happen for Reid to get 60 votes?” the aide asked.

The answer’s unclear “What’s a compromise going to look like to get Nelson? Or do you not need to worry about Nelson because of the compromise on the public option?”

If Reid tries to placate Nelson, that will put the ball in the pro-choicer’s court. But if he manages to pass a bill without drastically changing the abortion language as it reads in his bill right now, the ball will fall to pro-lifers. And operating under that assumption, pro-choice Democrats are reaching out to dozens of House members who voted for the Stupak amendment, but who don’t seem to have drawn a line in the sand over it.

“We’re going to some of the members who voted for Stupak–those with buyer’s remorse, and those who really want a bill to pass,” to feel people out, discuss potential compromises, and count votes.

“We have a whip list,” the aide said.

Convincing those swing-votes to be flexible on the abortion issue, then, may be the linchpin to all of health care reform. Whether the House and Senate bill are married in conference, or the Senate bill is sent over to the House for a vote, they are the ones who will make the difference.

In the past, House Majority Whip James Clyburn has said that adding the Stupak amendment won Democrats about 10 votes. But any bill is likely to pass by a thin margin–so there’s very little room for error.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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