WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson rejected a proposal Thursday that was billed as a compromise on federal funding of abortion, easing concerns by pro-lifers while also casting further doubt that a health care bill can pass the Senate before Christmas.
A pro-lifer from Nebraska, Nelson is facing increasing pressure to fall in line with his Democratic colleagues and allow a floor vote on the bill. But Nelson has rejected such calls, and even said Thursday that the abortion language isn't the only problem he has with the bill.
"There are other substantive issues" that would lead him to filibuster, he told KLIN-AM in Lincoln, Neb.
As it stands now, the bill allows federal subsidies for lower income people to go toward purchasing insurance plans covering abortion. It would be a departure from current policy that, for instance, prohibits insurance plans for federal employees from covering abortion.
If the bill is not changed, pro-lifers say, then the abortion rate could skyrocket. The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute this summer reported that about 25 percent of the women who would have had Medicaid-funded abortions chose instead to give birth when they were barred from using public money. Medicaid does not cover elective abortions.
With Sen. Joe Lieberman, I.-Conn., having had his concerns with the bill met -- a public option and Medicare buy-in apparently have been stripped -- Nelson seemingly is the lone holdout keeping Democratic leaders from reaching the crucial 60th vote to block a filibuster. There are 60 members of the Democratic caucus.
Sen. Bob Casey, D.-Pa., who votes with pro-lifers on some issues, had presented Nelson with compromise language Wednesday that National Right to Life nearly immediately rejected. Although the language was never released publicly, National Right to Life's Douglas Johnson said in a statement the proposal would have allowed federal subsidies for lower income people to be used for purchasing health care plans that cover abortion while somehow permitting "individual citizens to apply for conscientious objector status."
Said Nelson, "As it is right now, without further modifications, it isn't sufficient."
Nelson reiterated that he would support a filibuster if the abortion language doesn't meet his standards. He proposed a pro-life amendment to the health care bill that was defeated Dec. 8. It was similar to an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak, D.-Mich., in the House. The Stupak amendment, Nelson said Thursday, "is the right language."
Nelson did say Casey's language had some victories for pro-lifers, such as boosting the adoption tax credit and helping unwed mothers who want to choose an alternative to abortion.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, urged pro-lifers to pray for Nelson.
"Unless and until language in the Senate bill bans the use of public funds to underwrite the killing of our unborn citizens, pro-lifers will remain adamantly opposed to it," Land told Baptist Press. "I encourage all pro-life Americans to pray that God will give Sen. Ben Nelson courage and steadfastness as he stands for our country's unborn citizens.”
Despite being a member of a pro-choice party, Nelson has a strong pro-life record, all the way back to his two terms as governor in the 1990s. It was Nelson who signed the ban against partial-birth abortion that eventually was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. (The court later allowed a federal ban to stand.) He was endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life when he ran for re-election for the Senate in 2006 and has a 100 percent pro-life record in the current Congress, according to National Right to Life.
"We have a long relationship with him, dating back to when he was governor," Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, told Baptist Press. "So we acknowledge and recognize that [the health care/abortion divide is] not an easy task. He's a pro-life Dem. It can't be easy."
Schmit-Albin was among the pro-life leaders that Nelson's office called Wednesday to get her thoughts on the Casey proposal.
"I called them back and very forcefully said that it wasn't acceptable, it wasn't Stupak," she said.
Nebraska Right to Life is running ads on the state's two largest Christian radio stations, in Lincoln and Omaha, thanking Nelson for sponsoring his amendment and asking listeners to call him and urge him to stand his ground.
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said she "wouldn't want to be in Sen. Nelson's shoes," facing pressure from both sides.
"We really appreciate all he's done on behalf of pro-life Democrats," Day told Baptist Press. "... He's so solid on these issues."
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.
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.