Abortion in Healthcare Bill Remains a Puzzle for Democrats—and GOP Opponents

The abortion quandary could sink Reid—or save him.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Poor Harry Reid. For weeks, his main priority has been to get healthcare legislation through the Senate. And he's pushed hard, using just about every legislative trick available to him. Now, just when it started to look like he was making some progress comes the news that the folks back home have turned against it. In one recent statewide poll, 52 percent of Nevada voters said they didn't want the healthcare reform package Reid has been pushing so hard—and almost half of those said they were "strongly opposed," meaning they are likely to take their anger over the legislation out on their state's senior senator next November when he is once again up for re-election.

Nevada, for all of its Democrats, is not a liberal state. Reid joined the Senate leadership by proclaiming, or at least pretending, that he was a moderate who could help the leadership strike a balance with rank-and-file Democrats from places where liberalism was not the regular order of things. Now, with the House and Senate and the White House in definably liberal hands for the first time in more than a generation, Reid is caught between the national party and the folks back home, only 40 percent of whom say they are at all interested in helping him win re-election.

If he is able to find salvation it will come at the hands of his political opponents, who cannot agree on a strategy for defeating the healthcare bill. On the one hand are those who think the best way to stop the government's takeover of healthcare is to leave the bill largely as the Democrats have proposed it, to make them own every tax increase and spending hike and piece of rationing it creates. On the other are those who, fearful of its eventual passage, think the bill needs to be made as good as possible in order to mitigate the damage it might cause downstream.

Nowhere is this more clear than on the issue of abortion. Over in the House, the anti-abortion language offered by Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat, provided the only real hiccup Speaker Nancy Pelosi needed to suppress before moving to the vote on final passage. It made the House bill a pro-life bill by preventing the funding of abortions in the new healthcare regime and started a civil war among Democrats, a near majority of whom say that the final version of the bill going to President Obama for his signature must reflect the "pro-choice" position or they will not vote for it, in effect making the anti-abortion language a poison pill the Democrats will refuse to swallow.

Over in the Senate, the push is on to add similar language to the bill Reid is managing. Some on the right say privately that, with the abortion funding ban in both the House and Senate versions, the bill is likely to be stopped dead in its tracks. Others are not so sure. Larry Hunter, the former chief economist at the United States Chamber of Commerce who now publishes the SocialSecurity.org blog, says the inclusion of Stupak-like language in the Senate bill would actually pave the way for its eventual passage by helping Harry Reid lock in the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who has promised to vote with the Republicans to prevent anything other than an explicitly pro-life healthcare bill from coming to a vote.

Each side makes a powerful argument, but there is little predictive value in either. It is not certain House Democrats will vote down a healthcare package that includes the Stupak language, despite their bluster. They invite a near-permanent civil war on their own side if they do. It is also not certain that Nelson will keep to his commitments to the pro-lifers to vote against cloture on the Senate bill if his amendment is defeated—which leaves the Republicans on and off Capitol Hill divided on their strategy and, unintentionally, giving Reid the lifeline he needs.

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