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Abortion Debate Still Lurking Under Health Bill

When the dust settles on the health care battles over affordability credits, taxes and insurance regulations, Democratic leaders will still face the vexing issue of abortion insurance coverage.

A group of Members led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the Catholic church and other organizations opposed to abortion rights are firmly against allowing abortion coverage in new, federally subsidized insurance markets, while a group of abortion-rights supporters is vowing to kill any bill with Stupak’s language included. That leaves House leaders in a jam, although serious negotiations on crafting a compromise won’t come until the shape of the final bill is better known.

The House, for example, has been pushing a national health insurance exchange instead of the state insurance exchanges in the Senate bill, but that would appear to blow up Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) abortion compromise language in that chamber. Nelson’s amendment gives states the ability to opt out of allowing insurance plans to offer abortion coverage to women who get federal subsidies.

The Nelson language also requires people to send in separate checks to cover the abortion provisions of their insurance — a scheme rejected by Stupak and other abortion-rights foes as insufficient. It’s also opposed by some abortion-rights supporters in the House as cumbersome and likely to lead insurers to shy away from offering abortion coverage.

“We have to deal with the core issues of the bill first,— a House Democratic leadership aide said.

Another aide predicted they would ultimately solve the puzzle, given the magnitude of the issue. “There’s too much at stake for millions of Americans, for the party and for the president for us not to get this done,— the aide said.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said she has been in talks with the White House as well as Members on both sides of the issue to try to reach a compromise.

“It is a meeting a minute around here,— she said.

But DeGette said she still holds out hope for a deal.

“We don’t want to kill the bill over abortion,— she said. “We are willing to compromise and we are willing to compromise to current law. We think that is the intention of Bart Stupak and the pro-life guys as well.—

But DeGette noted that she has the signatures of 42 Members saying they would oppose a bill with Stupak’s language and said there would have to be a meaningful compromise.

“I don’t think there’s any way to get the votes for what I want or what Bart Stupak wants,— she said. “What I want is a bill that doesn’t talk about abortion. What Bart Stupak wants is a bill that goes far beyond current law.—

Stupak has denied that, arguing that the Senate bill would effectively allow millions to buy insurance plans covering abortion because of federal subsidies and break the long-standing Hyde rule preventing federal funding of abortions — even if the federal government isn’t signing the checks directly, as it would have with the now-dead public insurance option.

Stupak has pointed as precedent to the federal employee health insurance program, which does not cover abortions except in the case of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother, while DeGette points to the federal tax exemption for health insurance, which gives tax breaks to companies for plans without regard to abortion coverage.

DeGette, a chief deputy whip, said they may be able to pass a bill even if Stupak and a number of other Democrats jump ship.

“There are also a lot of people who voted against the bill the first time in the House who will vote for a final agreement,— she said.

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