The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the massive health-care reform bill this weekend. Here is Register correspondent Rich Daly’s latest look at the legislation and efforts to ensure that the federal government will not be spending tax dollars on elective abortions.

Abortion Fight Dominates House Vote

By Rich Daly

Register Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A fast-moving abortion fight dominated the last days before a final vote by the House of Representatives on legislation to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.

The House is expected to vote on the bill this weekend.

Democratic leaders scrambled to siphon enough representatives this week from a group of rebellious Democratic pro-life members of Congress to pass the bill (H.R. 3962), while critics of the measure railed against numerous anti-life and anti-family provisions in it.

The fight over whether the health-care bill would authorize the first massive federal funding for elective abortion threatened to stall the bill when a group of pro-life Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., raised objections in recent weeks. In letters and private discussions with their party’s leadership they sought permission for the full chamber to vote on a comprehensive ban for federal funding of elective abortions under the bill.

Stupak told Democratic leaders that 40 Democrats would support him in opposing the bill if a vote was not allowed. In the face of united Republican opposition to the bill, that would be enough to derail it.

“I have had some serious conversations over the past few days with the White House and House Leadership and I will continue to make every attempt to resolve the issue of public funding for abortion,” said Stupak, in a written statement. “However, there is no agreement, and I will oppose bringing the bill to the floor until an amendment can be offered or language agreed to that will prevent public funding for abortion.”

Pro-life advocates said a large majority of representatives would likely vote in support of an amendment to bar taxpayer funding of abortion, because the general public also opposes publicly funded elective abortions.

If the House rejects his amendment, Stupak may ultimately vote for the bill, according to a spokeswoman.

The abortion stand comes as time runs short for the legislation. Democratic leaders announced this week that they aim to vote on the bill by Friday or early next week.

Stupak’s stand may be undercut by side negations with some of his pro-life backers in the chamber. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., who generally votes pro-life, joined with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a strong pro-abortion advocate, to negotiate a new abortion amendment. The measure modifies an earlier amendment from Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., that Democratic leaders claimed as an abortion compromise but pro-life advocates rejected as a major expansion of federal abortion funding.

‘Phony Compromise’

The new amendment also was rejected by pro-life advocates, who criticized it as a “phony compromise” to obscure provisions to federally fund elective abortions.

Pro-life advocates worried that the amendment could cause a “split in the [pro-life Democratic] caucus,” said Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life.

In a hastily organized Nov. 2 conference call on the amendment, pro-life leaders said the measure would still allow insurance plans that cover elective abortions to receive federal subsidies, establish a government-run insurance plan that would fund elective abortions, and require all new regional insurance markets to offer at least one abortion-covering health plan.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, wrote to members of Congress on Nov. 2 that all of the earlier concerns about a large new federal funding stream for elective abortions remain in the final bill on which the House planned to vote. The clearest example of the new use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortion is through the bill’s creation of “public option” insurance programs, which would include elective abortion coverage.

“The public option will be a federal agency program, and when it pays for abortions, it will use federal funds, which are the only kind of funds that a federal agency can spend,” Johnson wrote.

The Stupak amendment would apply the three-decades-old principles of the Hyde Amendment to the federal public insurance program. That provision bars the use of federal funds for elective abortions under the Medicaid program.

Pro-abortion advocates maintained that the Hyde amendment already applies to the public option. However, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported this summer that the new public insurance program would fall outside of the authority of the Hyde amendment.

The resulting direct federal funding of abortion would be “a complete break from the policy that has long governed Medicaid and other federal government health programs,” Johnson noted.

Pro-life advocates also rejected an argument that such public plan funding of abortion would not qualify as government-funded because contractors — and not government employees — would be employed. They note that Medicare uses contractors and no one would claim that the federal government is not paying for that care.

Abortion opponents also objected to provisions in the final House bill that would allow federal subsidies to help purchase private health plans that cover elective abortion.

Rich Daly writes from Washington.