Obama Presents a Health-Care Plan, but Abortion Issue Remains Unsettled

Obama’s health-care-reform plan is a huge step forward for the Democrats, the momentum they need to push the legislation out the door. But the legislation is not 100 percent in the clear yet: yet again, abortion promises to become a linchpin issue in the future negotiations.

In his plan, Obama went with the abortion language that the Senate had adopted, which is less restrictive than the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. It came out of a last-minute compromise between Sens. Ben Nelson, an opponent of abortion rights, Patty Murray, and Barbara Boxer (both abortion-rights supporters). Opponents of abortion rights didn't like the language (neither did abortion-rights supporters for that matter) and Nelson later admitted he planned to filibuster the language, essentially force Senate to pick up the more restrictive Stupak language that the house was using. In other words, if the abortion opponents had their way, this language would never get anywhere close to seeing the light of days. Stupak-Pitts was the plan all along.

But now that it's been dropped from the plan, major pro-life groups are furious. "Any member of Congress who votes for the final legislation proposed by President Obama will be voting for direct federal funding of elective abortion … and also an array of other pro-abortion federal subsidies and mandates,” says Doug Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director.

So where does that leave us? Ben Smith over at Politico has the right analysis:

Abortion, an issue whose political salience seemed pretty much gone by 2008, is again central. The Stupak-Pitts amendment is gone, and with it an unclear number of Democrats. Abortion foes are again organizing with the demand of an "explicit exclusion of public funds for abortion," which they don't see in the accounting mechanism Ben Nelson negotiated … It's one more reason that all sides seem unusually unwilling to predict the outcome of the next couple of weeks.”
I think Smith is really right on this one; abortion is, as one Democratic aide put it to The New York Times earlier this week, a "wild card" in health-care reform and that will not be easily put to rest. It’s not like subsidies, where you can move the numbers around to satisfy more legislators; compromises in abortion legislation rarely, if ever, work. Nor is the abortion language like the public option, a provision that liberals would like, but aren’t willing to ditch the whole reform effort for. From what we’ve seen so far, opponents of abortion rights seem ready to stand firm on this one, even if that means killing health-care reform in the process.

What matters now is how large that “unclear number of Democrats” is, how many representatives will oppose the Democrat's compromise bill because of softer abortion language. If we’re talking Stupak and one or two other members of Congress, then the Democrats are probably safe. But if the ranks of Stupak-followers reach into low double digits, Pelosi may have a serious threat on her hands. When we know more of the numbers, we’ll better understand whether they will pose a threat to health-care reform moving forward.