Sen. Ben Nelson’s amendment to severely limit abortion access through health insurance exchanges and the public option was tabled on the Senate floor this afternoon, making good on speculation and hope that the Senate would be more hostile to abortion restrictions that the House, which passed a similar amendment, was. Tabling the amendment kills it, and was, as Robert Pear noted in the New York Times, the riskier move, since 51 votes were required to table it, and only 41 were to defeat it in an up-or-down vote. If Nelson refuses to support the Senate legislation, Sen. Harry Reid may have to court Sen. Olympia Snowe or Sen. Susan Collins, who are pro-choice but public option-hesitant, to join Dems in favor of his healthcare bill instead.
During floor debate, anti-choice senators were at pains to insist that the Nelson amendment did not create any new barriers to abortion (Sen. George Voinovich, how is lack of funding not a barrier?) and that the existing compromise on abortion funding in healthcare reform–in which insurance companies in the exchange would be required to use money from premiums and co-pays to pay for abortion coverage–was merely an accounting "gimmick" (Sen. Mike Enzi, tell that to any non-profit that both provides services and lobbies). The highlight of the floor debate over Nelson’s amendment was an impassioned speech by Sen. Barbara Mikulski yesterday, who quipped in response to arguments that women could simply buy a rider that offers abortion coverage, "Why not have men buy an abortion rider for the women they get pregnant?"
The tide on the Stupak (House version) and Nelson amendments seemed to turn last Wednesday, when a national pro-choice lobby day brought hundreds of citizen lobbyists, marshaled by a huge coalition of groups that included Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America but also dozens of smaller reproductive justice groups headquartered around the country, to Capitol Hill. At the packed rally that kicked off the day, the usual suspects–Rep. Jerry Nadler, Rep. Diana DeGette, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and newer faces Reps. Donna Edwards and Judy Chu–issued full-throated disavowals of Stupak–DeGette called Stupak "the devil’s bargain." Interestingly, a couple of reps got in a little Hyde-bashing to boot: "Stupak is not simply an extension of current law," said DeGette, "and believe me, I don’t like current law." (Nadler called Hyde "obnoxious.") The Hyde amendment, which bans Medicaid funding for abortion except in narrow cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, came in for less criticism, and even some support, in the floor debate today, with senators reaffirming that Hyde was not up for debate today and Sen. Chris Dodd saying that Hyde has "served us well." (Tell that to the tens of thousands of poor women and teens who are forced to carry pregnancies to term because they can’t afford abortion, Sen. Dodd.)