WASHINGTON -- Having seen an amendment lose that would have prevented the Senate health care bill from funding abortions, the nation's leading pro-life groups say they'll now urge senators to defeat the overall bill with a filibuster.
Their chances of success are unknown, although they apparently have one Democratic ally -- Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- who has said he has "drawn a line in the sand" and would filibuster the bill if it didn't contain language prohibiting tax dollars from paying for abortions. It was Nelson's amendment that was defeated Tuesday when the Senate voted to "table" the proposal, 54-45, essentially killing it. The amendment mirrored language that was added to the House health care bill by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
Nelson's support of the overall bill is critical: There are 60 senators in the Democratic caucus and it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. The pro-life groups say they'll ask their constituents to call their senators and urge a "no" vote on "cloture," which if passed with 60 votes would stop a filibuster and limit debate.
"[T]his is a long way from over," the National Right to Life Committee said in a statement, noting that the bill again must pass the House, where there are a bloc of pro-life Democrats.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he found Tuesday's Senate vote both "discouraging and encouraging."
"It's discouraging that the Senate as a whole could not comprehend the need to respect the will of 70 percent of the American people that public funds should not pay for or subsidize the killing of our nation's unborn citizens," Land told Baptist Press. "It was encouraging in that the motion to table got 54 votes, well short of the 60 needed to stop a filibuster. As long as there are sufficient pro-life senators such as Sen. Nelson who are willing to filibuster any health legislation that does not contain these restrictions on abortion, it will be difficult to break the filibuster and pass the entire bill.
Other groups, including the Family Research Council, Democrats for Life, Concerned Women for America and Americans United for Life, also said they would support a filibuster. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also said that failure to include pro-life language would "require us and others to oppose this bill because it abandons both principle and precedent."
Americans United for Life said, "We now have no choice but to work vigorously to defeat this bill."
The Nelson amendment would have done two things: 1) prevent a government-run public option from covering abortion, and 2) prohibit federal subsidies for lower-income people from purchasing private plans that cover abortion. Exceptions would be made for cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life. A woman would be permitted to use her own money to purchase a "rider" that covers abortion.
It is not known, though, whether the public option will remain in the bill. If it is dropped -- as some media outlets reported Wednesday would happen -- then the bill conceivably could pick up the support of one of Maine's two Republican senators (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins), who are both pro-choice, thus offsetting Nelson voting for a filibuster. Snowe and Collins were the only Republican senators opposing the Nelson amendment and are considered the GOP's most liberal members.
Asked after Tuesday's Senate vote if he was confident the bill would be successfully filibustered, the Family Research Council's Tom McClusky said, "The magic of the Senate is that just about anything can happen.... Sen. Nelson has drawn a pretty hard line when it comes to what type of abortion language he wants to see in the bill."
Seven Democrats joined 38 Republicans in opposing the motion to table the amendment: Nelson, Evan Bayh (Ind.), Robert Casey (Pa.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Ted Kaufman (Del.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.).
Pro-life groups are trying to pressure those and other Democratic senators to support a filibuster if pro-life language isn't added. The Family Research Council says it is calling every household in Arkansas, South Dakota and Louisiana -- all conservative states with Democratic senators -- to conduct a survey on such topics as abortion funding, rationing, higher taxes and the public option. It is also calling pro-life households in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Participants who answer a particular way will be given information on contacting their senators, an FRC release stated. Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Mark Warner (Va.) all sided with pro-choicers in voting to table the Nelson amendment.
"We're doing everything in our power to make sure that the constituents of those senators know that those senators are voting to expand abortion in this country," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said.
One concern among pro-lifers is that Democrats in both chambers will avoid the usual House-Senate conference -- where the differences in the two bills normally would be worked out -- and instead simply send the Senate bill straight to the House, which could pass it without changes and send it to President Obama. Such a move would bypass another round of haggling in the Senate and could make the bill easier to pass. House leaders, of course, must agree to such a move and likely would have a say in the final Senate bill.
"I think that's clearly what they're going to do," Perkins said. "We've been hearing that for a little over a week. They know that if … they work on it and send it to conference, it's in great jeopardy."
The challenge for House leaders, Perkins said, would be to get the 64 Democrats who voted for the Stupak pro-life amendment last time to support a pro-choice health care bill.
"They would have to go back on that vote and support taxpayer funding of abortion," Perkins said of the 64 Democrats. "I think it will be a major fight in the House to approve the Senate bill."
Pro-lifers also are anticipating Reid bringing to the floor a "manager's amendment" with supposed pro-life language that would be promoted as a compromise. Perkins said it likely would be "fake" pro-life language.
During debate Tuesday, Nelson told senators he wasn't there "to debate for or against abortion."
"This is a debate about taxpayer money," Nelson said. "It's a debate about whether it's appropriate for public funds to -- for the first time in more than three decades -- cover elective abortions.... Most Americans and most of the people in my state would say, 'No.' ... Some suggest that the Stupak language imposes new restrictions on abortion. But that's not really the case. We're seeking to just apply the same standards to the Senate health-care bill that already exist for many federal health programs.”
A CNN poll in November found American adults are against "using public funds for abortions when the woman cannot afford it" by a 61-37 percent margin. Other polls have found slightly higher or lower percentages, but all show that adults oppose federal funding of abortion.