Obama made his comments to ABC News two days after the House passed a health care bill that included a pro-life amendment by Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) and Republican Rep. Joe Pitts (Pa.). The amendment -- passed 240-194, with 64 Democrats voting in the affirmative -- prevents a government-run public option from covering abortion and prohibits federal subsidies given to lower-income people from paying for insurance plans that cover abortion. The amendment makes exceptions for abortions in the cases of rape and incest and to save the mother's life. Women could use their own money to purchase a "rider" covering elective abortions from a private insurance company.
For weeks, Stupak had been on the front lines in the political battle to get pro-life language included in the bill, and his side appeared to be on the losing end until the day before the vote, when Democratic leaders saw they needed the support of Stupak and a coalition of some 40 pro-life Democrats if the overall health care bill were to pass. The bill did pass, 220-215, but only after Stupak's amendment was added.
Asked by ABC News' Jake Tapper if he felt the amendment preserved the "status quo" or leaned in "one direction or the other," Obama said, "I think that there are strong feelings on both sides. And what that tells me is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we're not changing the status quo. And that's the goal."
Obama also said he's confident "we can actually arrive at this place where neither side feels that it's being betrayed."
"I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill," the president said. "And we're not looking to change what is a core principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions. And I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test -- that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices, because one of the pledges I made in that same speech was to say if you're happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, it's not going to change."
Pro-lifers, though, say the Stupak language is the only way Obama can keep the pledge he made in his September speech to Congress that "under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions."
"The only thing that will prevent the health care bill from being 'an abortion bill' is precisely the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, as the House of Representatives recognized by a 46-vote margin," Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said in a statement. "The phoniness of Obama's claim that he has been trying to preserve the 'status quo' on abortion policy should be evident to any observer by now. In reality, the White House and top Democratic congressional leaders have been working hard to create a national federal government health plan that would fund abortion on demand, just as Obama promised Planned Parenthood."
In fact, Planned Parenthood -- the nation's largest abortion provider -- released a statement after the House passed the bill, saying it was time the organization and its allies used "our strongest weapon: the White House."
"President Obama campaigned on a promise to put reproductive health care at the center of his reform plan," Planned Parenthood said in an alert that urged its constituents to contact the White House. "Supporters of women's health voted for him and contributed to his campaign in record numbers -- and now it's time for the president to reaffirm his commitment to women's health, and demand that Congress reject any bill that leaves women worse off under health care reform than they are today."
The attempt by Democratic leaders to pass a health care bill figures to get only tougher now. The Los Angeles Times reported that at least 40 pro-choice House members have pledged to vote against the bill when it returns to the House if it still contains the Stupak language. The Senate is working on its own version that would go to a House-Senate conference, and a spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) told Politico.com that Nelson was pleased the Stupak language passed the House.
"It is highly unlikely he would support a bill that doesn't clearly prohibit federal dollars from going to abortion," the spokesperson said.
A Nelson defection would be significant, because there are 60 members in the Democratic caucus and it takes 60 votes to cut off a debate and prevent a filibuster.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said there is no room to compromise on the issue. She called previous forms of compromise -- including what was known as the health care bill's Capps Amendment -- "phony."
" Reid should take his cues from the House and pro-life members of his own caucus when crafting abortion language in the Senate health care reform bill," she said in a statement. "What Senator Nelson and many others recognize is that the Stupak language is the only authentic abortion exclusion measure.
"Given President Obama's record and his promises to the abortion lobby, it is a safe assumption that he will support abortion-friendly language under the guise of 'compromise.' Despite his rhetoric, there is just simply no room for compromise when human life is at stake. Either you fund abortion or you don't."
For his part, Stupak said his amendment simply applied the Hyde Amendment -- which is current law -- to the health care bill. The Hyde Amendment, which must be renewed yearly, prevents Medicaid from paying for elective abortions. It was first passed in the mid-1970s.
"I am not writing a new federal abortion policy," Stupak said during debate. "I ask my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike: Let us stand together on principle of no public funding for abortion, no public funding for insurance policies that pay for abortion."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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