WASHINGTON - With the finish line in sight on the long national health care debate, Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who opposes abortion, announced that he will not stand in the way of a final bill, meaning that all of the pieces have fallen into place for the Minnesota delegation.
The timing of Oberstar's decision, which surprised even some aides, comes as Democratic leaders scramble to muster every last vote in a do-or-die showdown on landmark health care legislation extending coverage to 30 million more Americans.
In what could be a crucial week for the Obama presidency, federal funding for abortion has become a major stumbling block.
For weeks the Iron Range Democrat had been signaling that he wanted to support the legislation, but wasn't sure he could without stronger language barring public funding for abortion.
Until this past weekend, Oberstar was considered the last holdout from Minnesota in a congressional vote-counting operation that has Democrats cautiously optimistic about their chances of sending the bill to Obama by week's end.
As of Monday, the Minnesota delegation appeared to split largely along party lines. Only one lawmaker, rural Democrat Collin Peterson, is expected to cross party lines and join a unanimous Republican opposition.
Peterson was the only Minnesota Democrat to vote against the House version of the bill in November. It passed with only two votes to spare. Though Peterson said he sees improvement in the Senate version, he remains skeptical. "I can't see that it's changed things much," Peterson said in a recent interview. "We're not doing anything serious about holding costs down."
Oberstar, 75, voted for the House bill, but only after special language was added ensuring that federal funding could not be used for health plans that cover abortion. That provision, championed by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., has become the central fault line in the final debate.
Real battle in the House
But the Senate-passed bill, which has less stringent abortion restrictions, is now considered the only way for Democrats to get a bill through Congress. That's because Senate Democrats, who passed their bill in December, lost their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority after the Massachusetts Senate election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Because any changes to the Senate bill could trigger a Republican filibuster, Democrats have decided to send the bill intact to the House. They would then pass a separate "reconciliation" bill with changes agreed upon by House Democrats.
Under Senate rules, reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered and require only a simple majority. Senate Republicans have cried foul over the maneuver, though GOP majorities have used it in the past.
But the real battle is in the House, where 64 Democrats -- including Oberstar and Peterson -- voted for the Stupak language on abortion.
Another outstate Democrat, Tim Walz, voted for the House bill but against the Stupak amendment. Walz is still considered a yes vote on the Senate version, though spokeswoman Sara Severs said on Monday that he is "reserving the right to see the final language" of the reconciliation bill.
Stupak has claimed to have at least a dozen allies -- unnamed, but possibly including Oberstar -- who might vote no on the Senate bill.
Advocates of the bill have questioned Stupak's vote counting and got a boost over the weekend when Oberstar told his hometown newspaper, the Duluth News Tribune, he is "prepared" to vote for the Senate version.
'A yes vote will hurt him'
The Senate bill requires recipients of federal insurance subsidies to buy abortion coverage with their own money. But that has not satisfied abortion rights foes, who argue that it's an accounting gimmick, since government subsidies could still be used in plans that provide abortion coverage.
Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said Monday that Oberstar would prefer stronger abortion language, but that the difference "wasn't enough to warrant denying health care to 30 million people."
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national group that opposes abortion rights, said the decision could hurt Oberstar, who for more than three decades has represented a largely anti-abortion district in northern Minnesota. "It's bad politics," she said. "A yes vote will hurt him."
Dannenfelser's group recently commissioned polls in 11 congressional districts represented by anti-abortion Democrats. In Oberstar's district, the poll found that 73 percent of registered voters oppose the use of tax dollars for abortion.
But Kathi Di Nicola, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Minnesota, said, "Minnesotans understand that this bill is not about changing the law on abortion, it is about health care reform."
Schadl said Oberstar's office has been deluged with appeals from all sides, including letters from liberal Catholic theologians who say that the Senate bill upholds existing restrictions on abortion funding.
In the end, Schadl said, Oberstar will follow his own conscience as a Roman Catholic: "He will not be consulting polls, tea leaves, Tarot cards, or any other form of unholy divination before he makes a decision that is this important."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.