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Abortion battle heats up in Congress

Abortion is again becoming a front-burner issue in Congress, thanks to the new GOP majority in the House and 2012 presidential politics.

January 22, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As thousands of antiabortion activists stream into the nation's capital this weekend to protest the 38th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the politics of abortion are heating up again on Capitol Hill.

Although the election of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was driven, in part, by "tea party"-fueled anger over the healthcare overhaul bill and what critics see as the expanding role of government, the GOP wave also swept in scores of social conservatives, reenergizing the antiabortion movement in Congress.

At the same time, as the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 begins to take shape, potential candidates are jockeying for favor with conservative voters.

One, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, ignited a small-scale firestorm this week by invoking race while criticizing President Obama's position on abortion. "The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution?" Santorum said in an interview with CNSnews. "Well, if that person, human life, is not a person, then, I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'No, we are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"

Santorum later clarified his remarks, saying he was referring to Obama's African American heritage in a civil-rights context. "When I use the word 'black,' all of a sudden it gives people a reason to say, 'Ah, he's trying to make some sort of racial comment.' I was not," Santorum told Fox News on Thursday. "I was trying to talk about a historical fact about how the Constitution was interpreted and how it's interpreted today."

Late in the week, the co-chairs of the House's Pro-Life Caucus, Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), introduced two bills that would permanently prohibit any federal taxpayer-funded support for the procedure, an existing provision that has to be renewed annually. The legislation would also seek to ensure that any woman who takes advantage of the health insurance subsidies in the healthcare overhaul law can't use the benefits under the law to obtain an abortion.

"Abortion is not healthcare," Smith said. "Our new bill is designed to permanently end any U.S. government financial support for abortion whether it be direct funding or by tax credits or any other subsidy."

The provision is similar to an amendment, known as Stupak-Pitts after its House sponsors, that passed in the House last year but didn't make it into the final healthcare overhaul law. However, the Obama administration insists that an executive order signed after the law passed prohibits any federal funding for abortion.

"We had an opportunity during the healthcare debate to include the Stupak language, which would have made clear in law that taxpayer funding of elective abortion is prohibited," said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) Thursday. "That did not occur and clearly there's an awful lot of doubt as to where the administration really is on this issue."

Abortion-rights activists say the proposed new legislation is more far-reaching than the Stupak-Pitts language and attempts to restrict women from using their own private insurance to pay for abortions by depriving them of a tax deduction. Smith "opened a new front in this battle by introducing a bill intended to end private health insurance coverage for virtually all abortions," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. "Smith's bill goes far beyond any anti-choice ban on private health insurance coverage ever introduced in Congress."

Any House bill restricting abortions would face a tougher path in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but Boehner said that his new GOP majority is committed to pressing the issue in this Congress.

"Our members feel very strongly about the sanctity of human life," Boehner said. "We listened to the American people. We made a commitment to the American people in our Pledge to America. And we're continuing to fulfill our commitment."

joliphant@latimes.com

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