Bill Clinton Tackles Senate Abortion Rift

Former President Bill Clinton during a conference in Sevilla, Spain, Nov. 5, 2009. AP Photo/Miguel Angel Morenatti

Former President Bill Clinton knows just how high the political stakes are in the fight to overhaul America's health care system.

His failed attempt to revamp the delivery of medical care contributed to the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994.

Now, with the fate of health care legislation in the Senate's hands, Clinton is heading to Capitol Hill where he's expected to speak to Senate Democrats during their weekly caucus on Tuesday, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss his schedule.

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President Obama wants to sign the legislation into law by the end of the year. But abortion opponents in the Senate are seeking tough restrictions in the health care overhaul bill, a move that could roil a shaky Democratic effort.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said Monday he could not support a bill unless it clearly prohibits federal dollars from going to pay for abortions. Nelson is weighing options, including offering an amendment similar to the one passed by the House this weekend.

"I want to make sure something comparable ... is in there," Nelson said.

The House-passed restrictions were the price Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to pay to get a health care bill passed, on a narrow 220-215 vote. But it's prompted an angry backlash from liberals at the core of her party, and some are now threatening to vote against a final bill if the curbs stay in.

CBSNews.com's Stephanie Condon reports that the inclusion of Rep. Bart Stupak's restrictive abortion amendment in the bill has prompted well-established abortion-rights groups to oppose the entire House bill, and it is drawing the ire of feminist bloggers and activists. Read Condon's story in Political Hotsheet.

Mr. Obama said the legislation needs to find a balance.

"I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test - that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices," Mr. Obama said in an interview with ABC News.

Senate Democrats will need Nelson's vote - and those of at least a half-dozen other abortion opponents in their caucus. They face a grueling debate against Republicans who are unified in their opposition to a sweeping remake of the health care system. It's unclear how the abortion opponents would line up; the pressure on them will intensify once the legislation is on the floor.

Abortion-rights groups, meanwhile, are stepping up to pressure President Obama and the Senate to keep any Stupak-like measure out of the final health care bill. The National Organization for Women held a rally at the Capitol Monday in opposition to the amendment and is fundraising to lobby on the issue, reports Condon.

An intraparty fight over abortion is the last thing that Majority Leader Harry Reid needs. Reid is already facing a revolt among Democratic moderates over the government-sponsored health plan that liberals want to incorporate in the legislation as a competitor to private insurance companies.

Reid, who is himself opposed to abortion, will have to confront the issue directly as he puts together a Democratic bill for floor consideration. Two Senate committees approved separate health care bills which differ on abortion, but none would go as far as the restrictive amendment passed by the House.

The House bill would bar the new government insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases or rape, incest or the life of the mother being in danger. That's the basic rule currently in federal law.

It would also prohibit health plans that receive federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage. Insurers, however, could sell separate coverage for abortion, which individuals would have to purchase entirely with their own money.

At issue is a profound disagreement over how current federal restrictions on abortion funding should apply to what would be a new stream of federal funding to help the uninsured gain coverage.
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