Reproductive Rights Showdown Looms in Senate

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Associated Press

Reproductive Rights Showdown Looms in Senate

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A member of "Planned Parenthood' women's rights group protests against the "Stupak Amendment" which they say will ban private abortion coverage for millions of American women after lawmakers tagged an amendment restricting abortion access and funding to the health care reform bill. (AFP/File/Mark Ralston)

WASHINGTON — Senators debating health care legislation are headed
for a clash over abortion, the issue that threatened to derail the bill
in the House.

Anticipating the showdown, hundreds of abortion
rights supporters gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday to call on
senators to keep new abortion restrictions out of the health care bill.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., plans to unveil an anti-abortion amendment as
early as Thursday that abortions rights supporters inside the Senate
and out say they can't support.

Nelson says he won't vote for the
underlying bill without his strong abortion language. But opponents say
his amendment doesn't have the votes to pass. The outcome could be
critical in determining the fate of President Barack Obama's signature
health overhaul agenda.

At issue is how abortions would be
handled in the health care bills. In the House, a bloc of anti-abortion
Democrats forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to accept restrictions
that outraged liberals as the price for passing the Democratic health
care bill last month.

The language passed by the House would
forbid any health plan that receives federal subsidies from paying for
abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's
life. A new government insurance plan couldn't offer abortions, and
women would have to purchase separate coverage for abortion services.

Behind
the scenes, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who opposes abortions but wants to
vote for the overall health care bill, has been working to find
language that could satisfy both sides.

"Our goal is to maintain
essentially Hyde-like protections that prevent federal funds from being
used to pay for and subsidize abortion," Casey's communications
director Larry Smar said Wednesday, referring to the existing law on
abortion, though nothing had been finalized.

Efforts to find such a common ground failed in the House.

Women's
rights groups were caught off-guard by the provision that passed the
House and are now vowing to keep similar language out of the Senate
bill. Hundreds of activists organized by Planned Parenthood and other
groups rallied Wednesday, holding signs reading "Listen up senators:
Women's health is not negotiable."

Several House Democrats spoke,
vowing to oppose final passage of any health bill with the tough
abortion restrictions already approved by the House. Rep. Diana
DeGette, D-Colo., called it "a devil's bargain" that she couldn't
accept.

But the House language is just what Nelson wants to
include in the Senate bill. He is not satisfied with the language filed
by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., which would forbid
including abortion coverage as a required medical benefit, but would
allow a new government insurance plan to cover abortions and let
private insurers that receive federal subsidies offer plans that
include abortion coverage.

The money to pay for abortions would
have to come from premiums paid by beneficiaries themselves, kept
strictly separate from federal subsidy dollars. Supporters say that
would keep government funds from being used for abortions, except in
cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother as allowed
under a current law known as the Hyde amendment.

Abortion
opponents say Reid's bill circumvents Hyde. For example, they say that
any funds a government insurance plan would use to pay for abortion
would be federal funds by definition — even if the money comes from
premiums paid by beneficiaries.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.,
said after addressing the crowd that she didn't think Nelson had the
votes to prevail, though she stopped short of saying she'd oppose the
overall legislation if it included Nelson's language. Reid controls 60
votes, the exact number needed to advance legislation in the 100-member
Senate, so he has no room for error.

Boxer told activists at the
rally that the anti-abortion amendment adopted by the House amounted to
"the biggest rollback in a woman's right to choose in three decades."

Associated Press writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.

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