Pro-life progressives on Friday were pushing a new health care amendment on abortion funding, trying to shift the momentum on this sticking point issue and convince Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- the lone holdout preventing Democrats from reaching the magic number of 60 votes -- to support the overall bill.
The amendment from Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey, a Catholic who opposes abortion funding, was hailed by a range of Catholic and evangelical leaders and organizations -- though their conservative counterparts oppose the amendment and the Catholic bishops gave it a thumbs down.
The final version of the Casey amendment is in a so-called manager's amendment to the bill, and his proposal has yet to be released. But, summary language circulated by Casey's office on Friday revealed several new developments in the proposal. They include:
-- Conscience protections identical to those in the House bill that pro-life groups backed;
-- Elimination of a requirement that at least one plan in each health care exchange cover abortion and at least one plan not cover abortion (an exchange is the government-regulated market where uninsured people and small businesses can find affordable plans by using by government subsidies;
-- A provision for anyone in the exchange to "opt out" of abortion coverage in any policy, with a guarantee that no premium dollars from individuals who opt out will be used to fund abortions;
-- Segregating public and private funds in the exchange to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not subsidize abortions. A difference from earlier efforts to keep government and private money apart is that the accounts would be administered by insurers and overseen by state insurance commissioners, not the Department of Health and Human Services.
Moreover, the Casey amendment boosts and extends the Adoption Tax Credit by $1,000 and would provide a range of pregnancy services beyond the extension of maternal health care provided by the main legislation.
Among other things, the Pregnant and Parenting Teens and Women Amendment would provide a broad range of assistance to pregnant teens and college students to help them stay in school and improve services for pregnant women who are victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking. Such supports are longstanding goals of many pro-life advocates, who point to statistics showing that helping pregnant women could significantly reduce the number of abortions while providing young mothers with better opportunities to support their children on their own.
On Friday afternoon, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chair of the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities, came out against the Casey amendment:
"Senator Casey's good-faith effort to allow individuals to 'opt out' of abortion coverage actually underscores how radically the underlying Senate bill would change abortion policy," Cardinal DiNardo wrote in a statement. "Excluding elective abortions from overall health plans is not a privilege that individuals should have to seek as the exception to the norm. In all other federal health programs, excluding abortion coverage is the norm."
Earlier Friday, more than three dozen pro-life Christian pastors, leaders and theologians released a statement praising the Casey amendment as pushing Congress "closer than ever to reforming an unjust health care system that for too long has cost too much while delivering too little."
"Given the complicated set of concerns surrounding abortion funding and coverage in health care reform, this alternative language, which we understand will be included in the manager's amendment to the Senate bill, is a way forward. We urge all other pro-life people of good will to give it the careful consideration it deserves."
The signers include a range of top evangelical and Catholic leaders.
Other prominent Catholics were also encouraged by the Casey amendment -- a development which, when contrasted with the opposition of Cardinal DiNardo, could signal an emerging division within the Catholic forces lobbying on health care.
For example, a statement on Thursday from Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the influential Catholic Health Association, gave provisional support to Casey's amendment:
"As we understand it, the Senate intends to keep the President's commitment that no federal funds will pay for abortions and in addition provide significant new support for pregnant women," Keehan says in the statement. "Especially now that a public health insurance option is no longer on the table, we are increasingly confident that Senator Casey's language can achieve the objective of no federal funding for abortion. We urge Congress to continue its work toward the goal of health reform that protects life at all stages while expanding coverage to the greatest possible number of people in our country."
And on Friday, before DiNardo's statement of opposition was issued, a number of other Catholic groups got behind the Casey amendment.
"This is a major step forward that signals a profound commitment to ensuring health-care reform honors the dignity of the entire human family," said Victoria Kovari, interim director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "It's particularly important that we support low-income families and make sure pregnant women have access to critical services they deserve. This proposal is a model for Congress as deliberations move forward."
Catholics in Alliance also cited statements of support from NETWORK, a leading Catholic social justice lobby, and Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, the university that operates in the capital under the aegis of the Catholic bishops. "This is a tremendous pro-life victory for social justice, human dignity and the common good," Schneck said. Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, head of the umbrella organizations for the vast majority of Catholic sisters in the United States, also said she was encouraged by Casey's proposal.
Whose interpretation will win out may be answered when Nelson -- a Methodist and pro-life Democrat who often looks to Catholic voices for guidance on abortion issues -- makes up his mind.
On Thursday afternoon Nelson told a Nebraska radio station that what he had seen of Casey's amendment "isn't sufficient" to win his vote. There has been "a lot of improvement on the legislation," he said, "but the basic question on the funding of abortion has not been fully answered yet." Nelson added that he was asking religious groups in Nebraska for their input. (Three clergy members -- a Catholic priest and two pastors from Nelson's Methodist denomination -- weighed in on Friday with an Omaha World-Heraldop-ed urging Nelson to back the bill.)
Several groups were not waiting for Casey to publish his amendment before starting to campaign against it -- and some cases against Casey himself.
On Thursday Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told LifeNews.com that the Casey language "looks a lot like the other failed amendments that shuffle money around but still use taxpayer dollars to fund abortion." And he blasted Casey for not "working with pro-life groups to draw up a deal"-- even though Perkins and the FRC are leading efforts to kill the entire bill.
The Susan B. Anthony List, a leading anti-abortion lobby, on Thursday released an attack ad in Pennsylvania TV markets accusing Casey, a longtime pro-life Catholic, of "trading the lives of unborn children for a health care bill." Another conservative lobby, CatholicVoteAction.org, also produced a TV spot claiming Casey is considering voting for a health care bill "that would use Pennsylvania tax dollars to fund abortion."
And Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, on Thursday called Casey's efforts "an exercise in cosmetics -- like putting lipstick on a legislative warthog."
So total was the preemptive strike by conservatives against Casey that Michael Sean Winters, a pro-life Catholic who writes at the blog of America magazine, a leading Catholic weekly, said the National Right to Life Committee "should change its name to the Nasty Right to Life Committee."
"I am sure that any legislative language built around segregating funds will not pass muster with the USCCB and probably not with me either for that matter," Winters writes. "But, the demonization of Sen. Casey is a Republican, not a Catholic and not a pro-life objective."
That may already be a distinction without a difference at this point. On Monday, days before the Casey amendment was even written, Deal Hudson, a leading Catholic conservative with close ties to the Republican Party, called Catholic organizations backing health care reform "fake Catholic groups."
With Catholics unable to agree on whether Casey's amendment goes far enough, or whether health care reform is even a pro-life issue, or even who is Catholic enough to make those calls, it's hard to see faith-based progressives making a case strong enough to persuade Ben Nelson to back the package -- which is of course what opponents are praying for.
But the talks go on, and late Friday afternoon Nelson emerged from a meeting with majority leader Sen. Harry Reid indicating some movement -- but remaining coy:
"Hopefully we're making progress," Nelson told reporters, according to TPM. "As I said, there's always a lot of room, which you have to have between the bid and the ask, and we're seeing if we can close the gap."
Asked whether a resolution was likely today or Saturday, Nelson said only: "I don't know. I can't predict the time."
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