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Abortion-Rights Lobby Shifts Focus to Senate

Abortion-rights advocates, who were outmaneuvered in the House’s health care reform vote, are banking on tougher Senate rules and targeted lobbying to keep restrictive abortion language out of that chamber’s bill.

Representatives from abortion-rights groups reacted furiously Monday to the last-minute decision over the weekend by the House to include language that bars publicly subsidized health care plans from offering elective abortions, even if they only use private money to pay for the procedure.

“We’re hoping that cooler heads will prevail,— said Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s vice president for public policy.

She said abortion-rights advocates may have an advantage in the Senate because any amendments will likely require 60 votes to be approved. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) incorporates language included in Senate committee versions that abortion-rights groups accept, then opponents would have a difficult time mustering opposition to defeat it. But it is not clear what language regarding abortion Reid will include in the Senate bill.

Rubiner conceded her side was caught off guard by the House action and faced formidable opposition particularly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Representatives from the Catholic group met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) late last week.

“There’s nothing like a bunch of Catholic bishops coming up and intimidating people at the 11th hour,— Rubiner said, adding that the bishops’ “No. 1 issue is banning abortion for middle-class women.—

An official with the bishops took issue with the contention that the lobbying had been intimidating and last-minute.

Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the conference, said her group had been involved in health care for decades.

Furthermore, she said, “the bishops and conference staff have as much right to have conversations with Congressmen and their staff as anyone else.—

Saile said the bishops still have problems with the health care bills passed out of the Senate Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Church officials have made it clear to Congress for months that they could not support health care legislation unless Members included restrictive abortion language.

In an Oct. 8 letter to the Senate, Catholic officials urged lawmakers to “exclude mandated coverage for abortion and incorporate longstanding policies against abortion funding.—

“If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously,— the letter said. The Catholic Church has also sought to muster grass-roots opposition by encouraging parishes around the country to distribute fliers and e-mails opposing proposed Congressional provisions on abortion.

While the Catholic Church has clashed with liberals on abortion, it has been supportive in general of health care reform and has urged that any measure also ensure that health coverage be accessible and affordable for legal immigrants and poor people.

Saile said the church also wants to ensure that illegal immigrants can still buy private insurance with their own funds.

Both sides in the abortion debate are now focusing on a number of Senators who could tip the vote their way.

Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, estimated that there are 41 Senators who are strong abortion-rights advocates and another 40 that oppose abortion rights.

That leaves 19 Members, whom she called “mixed-choice folks,— who will be up for grabs in the upcoming debate.

Abortion-rights advocates are trying to emphasize that a compromise that they support would not involve using public money for elective abortions. Rather, plans offered as part of an insurance exchange would have to use private money collected from consumers to pay for the procedure.

But anti-abortion advocates dismiss such distinctions between private and public money as akin to accounting gimmicks. The successful amendment supported by anti-abortion forces and authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) bars the used of federal funds to pay for an abortion or cover any part of the costs of any plan that includes coverage of abortion, unless pregnancy is result of rape or incest, or the life of the mother is endangered.

However, under the plan approved by the House, people could still buy supplemental policies that cover abortion. Also, people who are not receiving public subsidies could buy insurance plans that cover abortion.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said that anti-abortion advocates will be keeping pressure on lawmakers who voted for the Stupak amendment last weekend to continue to do so in any conference committee action. The conference vote will be of top importance when the group compiles its ratings of lawmakers’ standing on the abortion issue, Johnson said. Such ratings are often cited by candidates and their opponents in political races.

In the Senate, Johnson said his group will be working with Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah) who offered amendments to tighten abortion-funding restrictions in the Finance and HELP committees. Johnson declined to name Democrats whom his group was working with but noted that Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) voted for abortion restrictions in committee. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has also indicated he supports the Stupak amendment.

One political observer said abortion-rights groups may be at a disadvantage in the fight because their supporters are unlikely to desert the Democratic Party even if party leaders make the pragmatic decision to placate the other side to get health care bill through.

“Democrats may be banking on what they perceive is that women have no other place to go,— said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.

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