WASHINGTON – Capping months of struggle, House Democrats cleared an abortion-related impasse blocking a vote on sweeping health care legislation late Friday and officials expressed optimism they had finally lined up the support needed to pass President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.
A vote was expected on the legislation today, after Obama’s scheduled midmorning trip to the Capitol complex to make one final pitch for its approval. The bill is designed to spread coverage to tens of millions who now lack it and ban insurance industry practices such as denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.
Under the arrangement, Reps. Bart Stupak of Michigan, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana and other abortion opponents were promised an opportunity to insert tougher restrictions into the legislation during debate on the House floor.
The leadership’s hope is that no matter how that vote turns out, Democrats on both sides of the abortion divide will then unite to give the health care bill a majority over unanimous Republican opposition.
The plan emerged from hours of meetings presided over by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and involving lawmakers on both sides of the abortion issue and officials from the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops.
In a midnight-hour appearance before the House Rules Committee, Stupak said he hoped the House would pass a ban on any abortion benefit from being offered in a government-run insurance option that is envisioned under the bill, except in instances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother was in danger.
Separately, he said that he and his allies wanted a similar ban on coverage under comprehensive policies offered by private insurers in a federally regulated exchange that would be created. Individuals would be able to buy supplemental abortion coverage as long as they used their own money, and not federal subsidies designed to make insurance affordable.
Stupak also said attempts during the evening to reach a compromise that both sides could support had ultimately collapsed.
“I think we have a fundamental disagreement in this issue. That’s a reality,” California Rep. Henry Waxman, a supporter of abortion rights, said after hours of closed-door talks on the issue.
Federal law currently prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in the case of rape, incest or situations in which the life of the mother is in danger.
In a struggle that combined the fate of Obama’s signature policy initiative and a 2010 campaign issue, bipartisanship was not an option.
GOP leaders boasted that all 177 House Republicans stood ready to oppose the $1.2 trillion bill, which would create a new federally supervised insurance marketplace where the uninsured could purchase coverage.