WASHINGTON — The lingering standoff over abortion in the health care debate in Congress has put several Minnesota Democrats in an unexpected bind that could threaten passage of a landmark health care overhaul.
With the debate shifting to the Senate next week, Minnesota's two Democratic senators remain noncommittal about supporting legislation that includes tough new restrictions on federal funding of abortion demanded by conservatives in both parties.
Sen. Al Franken has pronounced himself "deeply concerned" about the new abortion language. Sen. Amy Klobuchar says she would "prefer" a Senate version of the legislation that maintains existing restrictions on federal funding for abortion.
But neither has drawn any bright lines, contributing to a sense of impasse over President Obama's health reform agenda, which only a week ago was dominated by differences over a public health insurance option.
Looking back on the summer of town hall ferment, some analysts say this is where the health care debate was headed ever since critics like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., raised concerns about "death panels," school "sex clinics," and other issues that galvanized social conservatives.
"Health care has become the new abortion politics," said Hamline University political scientist David Schultz. "It escalates the whole debate."
In the House, which passed a historic health care package Saturday with only two votes to spare, Iron Range stalwart Jim Oberstar is among 64 Democrats who voted to add a measure that bars insurance plans that take federal subsidies from covering elective abortion services.
A new government-run insurance plan known as the public option would not cover abortion at all, except in cases of rape or incest or to save a woman's life.
Authored by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the provision was seen as a crushing defeat for abortion-rights supporters, but cleared the way for narrow passage of the bill.
While some Democratic leaders have vowed to strip the Stupak language in negotiations in the Senate, Oberstar is holding back, saying he'll "wait and see" what the final bill looks like.
Several dozen House liberals are threatening to vote against any bill that contains the new abortion restrictions, which they say would limit availability of abortion coverage even to women who pay private insurance premiums with their own money.
Breaking a truce?
Sarah Stoesz, who heads Planned Parenthood in Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the new abortion language breaks a fragile but longstanding legislative truce known as the Hyde amendment, a 1976 provision that restricts abortion funding in annual congressional spending bills.
"We're in the midst of an abortion battle we didn't want to be in," Stoesz said. "We have to fix this problem. But we also have to pass health care reform. It's a very complicated political situation."
According to Stoesz, the Hyde amendment already denies abortion coverage to women in the military and federal service, federal inmates, and low-income women on Medicaid. While abortion-rights groups have long wanted to overturn the Hyde amendment, they have been reluctant to press the issue -- one of the most divisive in American politics.
Many thought the truce would be extended in the health care overhaul package through a provision by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., intended to protect the ability of private insurance plans to provide abortion coverage as long as funds from public and private sources are kept separate.
Abortion foes objected, however, calling it an accounting gimmick. The Stupak amendment, prodded by Catholic bishops, was inserted at the 11th hour with the nearly unanimous backing of the entire GOP caucus.
"This wasn't a fake, watered-down pro-life amendment," said Bachmann, whose Washington rally against the Democratic health care plan last week attracted a large number of abortion protesters. "This was the genuine article."
Suddenly, abortion is now front and center in the health care debate. "It's about time," said longtime Minnesota abortion foe Brian Gibson, who heads Pro-Life Action Ministries. "It's become the dividing line in the health care debate."
The search for compromise
With both sides numerically able to block final passage of the health care bill, the focus in the Senate will be to find some compromise that will allow enough lawmakers to stay on board for final passage.
House Democrats Diana DeGette of Colorado and Louise Slaughter of New York, leaders of the 190-member Pro-Choice Caucus, say they have rounded up at least 40 signatures on letters to Obama and House leaders opposing the Stupak amendment. One of the letters, to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, threatens to withhold their support.
Minnesota Democrats Betty McCollum, Tim Walz and Keith Ellison all voted against the Stupak amendment, though none has threatened to vote against the final bill if the abortion language is not removed.
"There are a number of things that I wish were better," said Ellison, who favored a more robust public option in the bill. "But that's not what legislating is about."
Conservative Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson joined Oberstar in supporting the restrictive abortion language. Unlike Oberstar, Peterson joined Republicans in voting against the $1.2 trillion House health care bill.
With Democrats facing razor-thin margins for final passage in the House and Senate, Oberstar remains the odd man out of the Minnesota delegation: Urging colleagues to support the Democrats' health care plan, but unwilling to say whether he will do so himself if Democratic leaders weaken the abortion language, as they are under pressure to do.
Bracing for a bruising floor fight in the Senate, Franken said he is working with others on an amendment that would "strengthen the coverage for all-important women's health services."
But whether that breaks the deadlock remains to be seen.
"I don't see either side backing down," Gibson said. "The political backlash is going to be wild either way."
Star Tribune staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753