WASHINGTON - Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, introduced an amendment to the health care bill today that places the same restrictions on abortion funding as the one Michigan's Bart Stupak helped write that passed in the House.
The amendment faces a much harder time getting passed in the Senate, since it requires 60 votes to survive. But even if it's defeated, it could cause further problems for the bill, one of President Barack Obama's signature efforts.
If the amendment fails, Nelson could balk later at voting to end debate to clear the path for final passage of the health care reform legislation, which would play into the hands of Republican critics trying to kill the bill.
Meanwhile, if the legislation's supporters find a way to get it out of the Senate without the abortion restrictions, it would still have to be merged with the House bill. And if the abortion restrictions disappear from the merged bill - as many expect - it could hurt its long-term chances among pro-life Democrats, including Stupak, in the House.
In the Senate, Nelson and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch are the primary sponsors of the amendment, though one other Democrat - Pennsylvania's Bob Casey - has also put his name on the measure.
As written, the health care reform legislation in the Senate calls for any funds for abortion coverage provided by either the public option plan or participating insurers on a national exchange that receive federal subsidies to be drawn exclusively from premiums paid by the policyholders.
But critics, like Stupak and Nelson, argue that such a segregation of funds doesn't adequately stop public funds from being used for abortion coverage since the insurers are still receiving taxpayer money.
Their amendment goes further, saying no plan receiving federal subsidies - nor the public option - may provide abortion coverage, except in limited cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is in danger. Stupak says such a measure retains funding restrictions already in place.
"For more than 30 years, taxpayers' money hasn't been used for abortions, a standard that has the broad support of the American people. This rule now applies to federal health programs covering veterans, federal employees, Native Americans, active-duty service members and others, and should extend to those covered by any new health care bill," said Nelson.
But abortion rights supporters say it actually extends that prohibition to millions of women who could get coverage through the national exchange.
A vote on the amendment could come as early as today.