"Dice are rolling, knives are out," goes a lyric from the musical about political intrigue "Evita." As the Senate debates the Nelson-Hatch amendment, which would ban federal funding for abortion in ways similar to the Stupak Amendment which passed the House last month, the USCCB decided to roll the dice rather than continue to negotiate is search of a compromise. It is expected the Senate will defeat the Nelson-Hatch amendment and it is far from clear that the pro-life movement will be in a position to affect the final legislation once that happens.
The Senate’s pro-choice leaders were completely disingenuous in their comments on the Senate floor yesterday. They insisted that the current bill, which "segregates" public funds from the monies contributed by individuals, does not provide federal funding of abortion coverage. This is simply false. They also spoke movingly about poor women and their needs, conveniently overlooking the fact that most poor women will be covered by Medicaid in the new bill, and Medicaid does not cover abortion. And they trotted out the argument that an unplanned abortion is, by definition, unplanned, and so women would be unlikely to purchase an abortion rider, but all insurance is intended for unplanned events: No one plans on a child getting injured in their pool or a burglar stealing an especially valuable piece of jewelry, but people by riders to protect against such unplanned events all the time.
The abortion debate is concurrent with, and now related to, the debate over the public option. Memo to Harry Reid: Tell Nelson you will give him what he wants on abortion if he supports the public option! That does not bring over Olympia Snowe, of course, but if you have Nelson you don’t need Snowe’s vote. Just as importantly, the current compromise proposals on the public option will likely achieve much of what the Nelson-Hatch amendment sought on restricting abortion coverage. The expansion of Medicaid means more people in a federal program that does not cover abortion. And, Senate negotiators are talking about replacing the public option with a buy-in option, where individuals can essentially buy into the federal employees insurance program. That program, like Medicaid, also prohibits abortion coverage. This idea was, as far as I can tell, first floated in this very blog a week ago.
That leaves the issue of subsidized plans in the exchanges, the most nettlesome issue of all. Some have said that the differences between the Senate and House bills will need to be worked out in Conference Committee and that we can fight for the Stupak language there. But, I foresee a different scenario. I foresee the White House recognizing that the peculiar dynamics of the Senate make it impossible to alter whatever finally passes the upper chamber. I suspect they will ask Speaker Nancy Pelosi to agree to bring the Senate bill to the floor of the House as is, with no changes. If this happens, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services will have wide discretion to restrict abortion coverage or not, and that means that abortion will become a festering, central debate in all future elections. That is not a happy outcome and one that the USCCB should be willing to try and avoid by continuing to seek a compromise now.
The next twenty-four hours are probably decisive, and if you have a fence-sitting Senator in your state, give them a call. The problem is that there are not many fence-sitters on abortion. The dice are rolling. Let’s hope the knives stay sheathed.