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Abortion deal in sight in Senate healthcare negotiations

Barbara Boxer is 'optimistic' about reaching 60 votes after all-day talks with Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic holdout Ben Nelson. The GOP redoubles threats to slow business to a crawl.

December 19, 2009|By Janet Hook and Noam N. Levey

Reporting from Washington — With a critical vote looming this weekend, Senate Democratic negotiators closed in Friday night on a deal to persuade a lone Democratic holdout -- Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson -- to back the party's healthcare bill, after a marathon day of negotiations.

That would give Democrats the 60 votes they need to quash a series of Republican-led filibusters and pass a bill by Christmas.

Nelson, who has been pushing for tougher restrictions on federal funding for abortion, emerged from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office just after 9:30 p.m. following talks with Reid and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a leading supporter of abortion rights.

Nelson provided few details about the negotiations. It's "one of those situations where it's probably best for everybody to sleep on it tonight and talk again tomorrow," he said.

Boxer, who came out later, was more upbeat. "I'm optimistic that we can get 60 votes," she said.

A spokesman for Reid said in a statement that the majority leader also was "confident" that the healthcare legislation would pass. "We have made great progress and are pleased with how the negotiations have proceeded," Jim Manley said.

Senior White House officials, including Nancy-Ann DeParle, head of the White House Office of Health Reform, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), also were involved in the talks, which began Friday morning and ran through the day.

Nelson has been talking with Reid not only about abortion but about ensuring adequate federal funding for a Medicaid expansion, as well as provisions dealing with adoption and excise taxes on the insurance industry.

The pressure on Democratic leaders was intensified by GOP stalling tactics and the prospect of a major snowstorm in Washington this weekend.

As Reid worked to persuade Nelson to back the healthcare bill, Republicans redoubled their threats to use procedural rules to slow the Senate's business to a crawl, including forcing the healthcare legislation to be read aloud on the Senate floor.

"I don't think it would be outrageous to ask for a bill that we haven't seen to be read," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters Friday.

Reid plans to introduce a series of proposed changes to the legislation this morning and then file a series of procedural motions that would allow the Senate to take a final vote on the bill on Christmas Eve.

That would require three procedural votes staggered between Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon, a tight timeline that could be threatened if GOP lawmakers insist that Reid's amendment and the underlying 2,074-page bill be read aloud.

Democrats also contended with more expressions of rage from the left on Friday, sparked by Reid's decision to drop the public option from the Senate healthcare bill.

The liberal grass-roots powerhouse MoveOn.org asked its members on Friday to sign a petition urging Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other liberal lawmakers to block the bill.

But in the waning hours of Democrats' search for votes, abortion emerged as the critical sticking point.

The continuing deadlock recalled the final stages of the healthcare debate in the House, where Democrats' sizable antiabortion faction demanded that the bill include abortion-funding restrictions that were vehemently opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her abortion-rights allies.

At issue is a long-standing policy known as the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal money in Medicaid and other government programs for abortion -- except in cases of rape, incest or a danger to the life of the woman.

The question Congress now faces is how that policy would apply to the new programs established by the healthcare bill -- including the premium subsidies the bill would provide to help people buy insurance in a new exchange for those who do not get affordable coverage from their employers.

The Senate bill would allow policies in the exchange to cover abortion so long as they guarantee that federal funds are not used to pay for the procedure. The House bill's stricter language would prohibit insurers in the exchange from offering any abortion coverage to people who receive federal subsidies -- a curb that critics say would go too far and curb access to abortion coverage paid with women's own money.

The negotiations with Nelson built off a proposed compromise offered by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

Casey's amendment tried to strike a middle ground by requiring insurers to segregate private premiums from taxpayer funds, subject to annual audits; provide aid to young pregnant women and for adoption services; and establish a conscience clause to protect people who want to opt out of abortion coverage from indirectly funding others' abortions.

In a statement released Thursday, the Catholic Health Assn. said it was satisfied that the Casey amendment would keep taxpayer money from paying for abortions.

But the National Right to Life Committee said the Senate bill would still allow federal funds to directly and indirectly support abortions because the distinction between public and private funds was "contrived."

janet.hook@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

Tom Hamburger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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