Issue added to health bill after lobbying by Catholic and right wing Christian groups
US senators are expected to vote tomorrow on changes to healthcare legislation that would stop medical insurance schemes from paying for terminations, as the battle over abortion rights moves back to the US Senate.
The issue is proving among the most divisive in the healthcare debate, along with proposals for government-funded medical insurance. The Senate debate on the abortion restrictions opened the day after Barack Obama met Democratic party senators to appeal for them to overcome policy differences on health reform and consider the broader sweep of history. He described the reforms as the "most important social legislation" in decades, while Republicans are predicting the president will meet his "Waterloo" over a signature campaign issue.
A Democratic party senator, Ben Nelson, introduced an amendment today modelled on a similar measure passed by the House of Representatives that effectively blocks women from obtaining an abortion on heath insurance other than in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
The proposed legislation bars public funds from being used to pay for terminations after a lobbying campaign by the Catholic church and rightwing fundamentalist Christians was instrumental in forcing the issue on to the healthcare agenda. Pro-choice groups say the effect will be to bar most terminations from being paid for by medical insurance because almost all plans will be touched by government subsidies.
Some senators predicted that the measure will have a harder time in the Senate than it did in the House of Representatives, but it is just one issue still to be resolved before heath reform is passed.
Obama met Democratic party senators on Sunday to appeal for their support to meet a Christmas deadline for the new legislation. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse quoted the president as saying: "Decades from now this will be the kind of vote you remember. It will be written in the faces of children and families who are relieved of the burden of anxiety and sorrow."
Senator Richard Durbin told the New York Times that the president came with a straightforward message. "He reminded us why we are here. He reminded us why we run for office. And he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through," said Durbin.
But the president did not directly address either the abortion question or the issue that is most dividing the Democratic party – the inclusion of government-run health insurance.
The Democratic party leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, included a watered-down version of government insurance, the so-called public option, in the legislation but it appears he may not have the necessary votes to see it pass.
The bill requires the support of all 60 Democratic party and independent senators to pass. Reid appears to be four votes short because of opposition from conservative Democrats and a threat by the party's former vice-presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, who now sits in the Senate as an independent, to filibuster any legislation that includes a public option.
The Republican members are almost solidly against government insurance. Senator John McCain on Sunday accused the president of plotting a "takeover of the healthcare system by the federal government".
Obama and Democratic leaders have been wooing the sole Republican senator who has shown a willingness to cooperate, Olympia Snowe. She has joined a Democratic senator, John Kerry, in proposing a compromise on the public option that would see it kick in only in states where private insurance is not competitive or affordable to the poor.
I have nothing to say *fumes*