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House Adopts Stupak Amendment on Abortion

By Alex Wayne, CQ Staff

November 7, 2009 -- The House voted Saturday to prohibit federal funding for abortion in new insurance programs created by a Democratic health overhaul, in one of the biggest showdown votes on the issue in a dozen years.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., along with Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., and Joe Pitts, R-Pa., was adopted 240–194. One member, John Shadegg, R-Ariz., voted "present." Sixty-four Democrats supported the amendment and no Republicans voted against it.

The vote showed that abortion opponents still hold sway in the House despite big Democratic gains in the last two elections. Interest groups and congressional caucuses on both sides of the issue spent Saturday furiously lobbying for support. The National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, called the Stupak amendment the most important abortion vote since Congress voted in 1997 to uphold existing prohibitions on federal funding for abortion.

But the amendment only came to a vote, Stupak said, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could not convince abortion-rights supporters in her caucus to accept an agreement to include less restrictive abortion language in the bill.

"By going to the floor we're actually getting stronger language than we had in the agreement," Stupak said. "I think . . . the other side overreached and we get our amendment."

Abortion issues had riven House Democrats over the past week as they made final preparations to bring their health bill (HR 3962) to a vote.

In the deal struck Friday night between Pelosi, Stupak and Ellsworth, Pelosi agreed to allow a vote on an amendment that would essentially extend prohibitions on federal funding for abortion—so called "Hyde amendment" language—to the health bill. The Hyde amendment is named after former Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill. (1975-2007), who first attached it to an appropriations measure in 1976.

The result of the Stupak amendment would be that insurers selling plans through a new government-run "exchange"—including a government-run plan, the public option—could not offer policies covering elective abortion to people who receive federal subsidies for their premiums.

Instead, women with subsidized policies who also want abortion coverage would have to purchase separate abortion-only "riders" for their plans, using their own money.

Insurers would be allowed to cover abortions that result from rape or incest or when a pregnancy threatens a mother's life. And people who do not receive federal subsidies would be able to buy policies on the exchange that cover elective abortion, though abortion rights supporters are skeptical there will be any available.

"The Stupak-Pitts amendment pretty much makes a legal medical procedure unavailable to women buying insurance on the exchange," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.,

DeGette and other opponents argued that the Stupak amendment was thus an extension of the Hyde amendment language to the private market and an intrusion of government into a woman's decision to have an abortion.

"It attempts an unprecedented overreach on women's basic rights and freedoms in this country," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., during the floor debate on the Stupak amendment.

Stupak particularly alienated some Democratic women with his amendment. When the Rules Committee approved a rule for the health bill early Saturday morning that allowed debate on Stupak's measure, chairwoman Louise B. Slaughter, D-N.Y., and the committee's two other female Democrats, Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, were absent and did not vote.

Slaughter is co-chairwoman, with DeGette, of the Pro Choice Caucus. A spokesman for the committee confirmed that their absences were intended as a statement on the amendment.

How the Deal Was Done
Democrats who support abortion rights were furious over the deal Saturday morning, but Stupak said they brought it on themselves by rejecting the earlier deal.

"It's my understanding . . . that they said we can't agree to this, let's put it to a vote because we've all got to vote our conscience on this," Stupak said before the vote. "I'm comfortable doing that, because I think we have the votes."

DeGette described the events differently. She said Stupak had first threatened simply to vote against the rule on the bill—not the bill itself—if he didn't get his language added. So DeGette and her allies, she said, rounded up enough votes to pass the rule without the abortion opponents.

"We had the votes for the rule," DeGette said. But Stupak, she charged, "moved the goalposts" by then threatening that he and his allies would vote against the bill, too.

Stupak said he remained consistent.

"I still believe, going into that last night, we still had enough to block the rule," he said.

Regardless, Pelosi's hand was forced, and late Friday she directed the Rules Committee to put Stupak's amendment in order.

Abortion rights supporters didn't surrender. "We're not convinced at this point that we can't defeat it," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. Members of the congressional Pro Choice Caucus began calling their colleagues to see if they were committed to support the Stupak amendment. If they weren't, Schakowsky said, "we want to talk to them about how this is a vast expansion of limits on women's reproductive rights."

The amendment's adoption made the health bill a difficult vote for abortion rights supporters. DeGette predicted that "there is a risk" the bill might fail.

"But people like me don't want to see this health care bill go down," she said.

Stupak said Pelosi probably won about 10 additional votes for the health bill just by allowing a vote on his amendment. He figures that of his 40 allies, 10 or 15 would have voted for the bill regardless, and about 15 would never vote for it. Half would have supported the bill even if the amendment had failed, and about five more supported the bill because of the amendment, he said.

Stupak said he himself was undecided on the bill: He is upset over a change, included in the manager's amendment, that would no longer offer a tax credit to paper mills that produce an alternative fuel known as "black liquor."

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