With Nelson's decision to back the latest health-care proposal offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats gained the final vote needed to move the bill toward passage. The Senate voted shortly after 1 a.m. Monday to invoke cloture on the abortion agreement, thereby preventing a filibuster by Republicans.
Reid gained exactly the votes needed to gain the procedural victory when 58 Democrats and two independents voted to end debate and move the legislation forward. All 40 Republicans voted against cloture.
The final vote in Reid's effort to advance the controversial measure came when Nelson announced his agreement to support the bill following concessions from the majority leader from Nevada. Nelson said he believed they had achieved the goal of preventing "tax dollars from being used to subsidize abortions."
The country's major pro-life organizations disagreed.
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said he is "distressed that Senator Nelson would settle for so little on the pro-life issue."
Nelson "let down Nebraska and he let down Americans who oppose government-funded elective abortions," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List.
"The new abortion language solves none of the fundamental abortion-related problems with the Senate bill, and it actually creates some new abortion-related problems," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).
The latest Reid measure requires enrollees in private insurance plans receiving government subsidies to write two checks, one for their premium and another for coverage of elective abortion. Insurance companies would have to separate abortion coverage money from the subsidies they receive from the government. The legislation also permits states to ban abortion coverage in government-subsidized plans.
The proposal is the latest in a series of funding segregation proposals -- none of which truly prevents federal subsidies of insurance plans that cover abortion, according to pro-life organizations. The language also would require Americans in states that ban abortion coverage to fund subsidies for abortions in states that do not take such action, pro-lifers point out.
The ability of states to "opt out" is inadequate, the ERLC's Land told Baptist Press.
"As I understand it, in practicality that would mean pro-life Americans would only be forced to pay with their federal tax dollars for elective abortions in the 10 to 12 states that will not opt out through their state legislatures. That is a pitiful excuse for a compromise that looks far more like surrender," Land said. "The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and Congressman Bart Stupak, the sponsor of the Stupak-Pitts pro-life amendment in the House of Representatives, are right in rejecting this pathetic substitute for a compromise."
The amendment by Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, and Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, keeps a government-run public option in the House bill from covering abortion and bars federal subsidies given to lower-income people from paying for insurance plans that cover abortion.
The House approved the Stupak-Pitts amendment just before passing its version of health-care reform in early November. Sixty-four Democrats joined with 176 Republicans in passing the pro-life amendment in a 240-194 roll call.
Reid's latest proposal, known as a "manager's amendment," is "light years removed" from Stupak-Pitts, said National Right to Life's Johnson.
"The so-called 'firewall' between federal funds and private funds is merely a bookkeeping gimmick, inconsistent with the long-established principles that govern existing federal health programs, such as the Hyde Amendment," Johnson and other NRLC officials said in a letter to Congress.
"It's a tragedy that Senator Nelson has paved the way for legislation that departs from the status quo," said the SBA List's Dannenfelser. "If this bill passes, for the first time, federally funded and managed health care plans will cover elective abortions. Pro-life Americans in Nebraska and other states that choose to 'opt-out' of abortion coverage will still be forced to foot the bill for abortions in California and New York.
"This is not 'compromise' or 'middle ground' -- it is a betrayal of conscience for millions of Americans. And it is a betrayal of Senator Nelson's own principles," she said.
The Hyde Amendment bars federal funds in Medicaid from paying for abortions except in the cases of a threat to the life of the mother, rape or incest.
Reid's health-care bill appears headed toward passage by the Senate in a Christmas eve vote. Because the Senate version will differ from the House-approved one, a conference committee of members of both chambers will convene to work out differences. Both bodies will have to approve that conference report.
It appears the only hope for pro-lifers and other Americans who oppose government funding of abortion is for Stupak and his allies to prevent final passage of any bill that does not include his amendment.
Abortion-rights advocates also voiced their displeasure with the abortion language in the Senate bill.
"While the Senate bill does not include the Stupak-Pitts provision, this new language is unacceptable," said NARAL Pro-choice America President Nancy Keenan. "It is inexplicable that a bill seeking to expand health coverage for Americans would impose such great administrative burdens on women who purchase abortion coverage and plans that offer it."
Keenan said her organization would withhold support for the entire health-care bill until a final version comes out of the conference committee.
The ERLC's Land also was distraught over the way senators came to support Reid's health-care legislation.
He told BP, "Many people will remember John F. Kennedy's wonderful little book 'Profiles in Courage,' which tells the stories of men who stood against incredible political pressure for conscience sake. There's a reason it's such a small book. Such profiles in courage are rare. In the past few days, we have seen just how rare in the United States Senate.
"President Obama promised health-care deliberations on C-SPAN, open for all to see. Instead, we've been treated to crass political deals cut in the middle of the night behind closed doors," he said. "Senator Mary Landrieu's $300 million deal, now forever known in infamy as the 'second Louisiana Purchase,' has been joined by Senator Ben Nelson's 'Cornhusker kickback,' in which his state is forever exempted from the inevitable increases in state Medicaid payments that will be necessitated by the passage of this legislation. Of course, citizens of the other 49 states will now have to federally subsidize Nebraska to pay for the 'Cornhusker kickback' in perpetuity. I cannot think of two more appalling examples of the opposite to JFK's Profiles in Courage."
Land called for Americans "to continue to contact their congressmen and senators as they are home over the holidays and tell them just how upset and outraged they are that they and their colleagues would continue to attempt to pass health-care legislation that has been rejected by an ever increasing majority of Americans. Where is 'government of the people, by the people, for the people.' I still believe that if the American people make their voices and convictions heard loudly enough in Washington, this legislative monstrosity can be stopped."
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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