Why The Senate's Abortion Debate Does Not Matter

The Senate is now debating one of health-care reform's most controversial provisions: Ben Nelson's abortion amendment. The language of Nelson's amendment, introduced yesterday, mirrors the strong restrictions of the Stupak amendment and bars plans traded on the government exchange from covering elective abortions. Barbara Boxer, the first Senator to speak in opposition to Nelson's amendment, was quick to term it "the biggest rollback to a woman's right to choose in decades." Meanwhile, Nelson has repeatedly threatened to filibuster any bill without his language. Groups that both oppose and support abortion rights have encouraged members to write letters to their senators on the issue, imploring them to vote one way or another.

But no matter how many letters are written or emotional speeches given, this abortion debate does not actually matter. Both Republicans and Democrats admit it's near impossible that Nelson's amendment could pass the 60-vote threshold. "The question is whether or not you can get 60, which I think is very much in doubt," John Thune, a Republican cosponsor of the Nelson amendment, told the Hill yesterday. Even Bart Stupak, who sponsored the house amendment, had already admitted a Senate defeat. He told the Detroit Free Press yesterday, "I don't think we will prevail in the Senate."

That means, what will matter most is not today's Senate debate, but rather where the Nelson/Stupak language ends up in the reconciliation process. And that depends on how many supporters majority leader Harry Reid has when he heads to the negotiating table. The situation will unfold one of two ways, both of which depend on whether Reid can sway one (or more) centrist Republicans:

If Reid can get Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins to vote for health- care reform, then he no longer needs Nelson's vote. In this situation, Nelson's filibuster threat becomes irrelevant and his amendment gets dropped. Moreover, dropping the Nelson/Stupak language would probably be fine by the two centrist Maine senators since both generally support access to abortion issues. Chances are Reid would only need one Republican vote to pull this off, since Bob Casey (the other Democrat sponsor of the Nelson amendment) has said he'll support Nelson but won't necessarily filibuster the bill if it does not pass.

But it's just as plausible that Reid will not win over any Republicans and cannot stand to lose anyone in his 60-person caucus. In that case, Reid would likely re-offer the amendment in the reconciliation process, adding the strong restrictions to the final bill and shoring up the Nebraska senator's vote. In that case, the Senate prochoice Democrats, just like their colleagues in the House, will most likely hold their noses and approve the bill. They'll be able to use their Senate vote as a cover, a way to record some sign of protesting the Nelson amendment, albeit a practically meaningless one. (The Hill has a more detailed outline of this situation).

To be fair, there is a third option: Nelson backs off his threat to filibuster a bill without his abortion language. This, however, seems unlikely given his declaration on repeated occasions that he will follow through.

So if you really want to read the tea leaves on how abortion will play out, you would actually be better off following the debate over the public option. Why? Because the public option and what form it takes (or, if it survives to take any form at all) is a key issue for moderate Republicans. And, as outlined earlier, they are the key to what happens to abortion in the final bill. Or, you could watch the debate slated to follow Nelson's amendment: Sen. Byron Dorgan's amendment on importing medications, which once again involves those swing Republican votes. In fact, Snowe and Collins are both signed on as cosponsors. To predict what happens to abortion in health care, keep your eye on anything that relates to whether or not Reid can woo a Republican. These debates, admittedly, will not be nearly as heated as the abortion battle—but they are key in determining where the issue goes.