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December 19, 2014

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Seeking common ground on abortion

Can Senate live with strict language in the House bill?

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

As the health care debate morphs momentarily into an argument over whether federal money should be used for abortion, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s every move is being watched.

Days after the House voted to include stricter abortion restrictions in the health care bill, nearly 50,000 abortion rights supporters urged Reid in a petition to block the provision from the Senate bill he is crafting.

Conventional wisdom says the majority leader faces a great dilemma: Reid is a Mormon who opposes abortion but is under great pressure from the Democratic base to prevent the House’s strict Stupak-Pitts amendment from being included in the Senate.

President Barack Obama has waded into the debate, saying this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill. And House Democratic leaders believe the restriction will be dropped when the bill returns from the Senate for final passage.

The issue tests the bigness of the Democratic big tent at a time when the Democratic majority in Congress includes the more liberal abortion rights supporters as well as the conservative and religious Democrats whose 40 votes could have torpedoed the bill in the House.

Facing a tough 2010 re-election battle back home in Nevada, Reid’s calculus on the issues is also likely to factor in the sentiments of Nevada’s libertarian-leaning voters.

Many Nevadans tend to like government best when it stays out of their lives. They may not want government to fund abortions, but they also don’t want government telling them what they can and cannot do.

The two Republican front-runners challenging him are both staunchly anti-abortion.

Nevadans overwhelmingly passed a statewide constitutional question in 1990, upholding a woman’s right to an abortion and placing the state solidly in the abortion rights column.

That was the state’s last major public debate on the matter.

“Abortion is an issue that Nevada just kind of leaves alone,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The indifference of Nevada’s voters may partly explain why Reid’s mixed record on abortion over the years has rarely provided much fodder for political attacks.

Having it both ways?

Reid, personally, is solidly against abortion except in the case of rape, incest or a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother. As a senator, Reid has routinely voted against legislation that seeks to loosen restrictions on abortion, including bills that have tried to allow federal money for the procedure.

Yet those close to Reid believe that although he is staunchly anti-abortion, he also thinks government should not be involved in making such decisions.

Even more, as leader of the Democratic caucus, which overwhelmingly favors abortion rights, Reid has sometimes used his power and procedural prerogative to prevent votes from coming to the floor on abortion restrictions — as he did in 2006, blocking an amendment to a bill that would prohibit minors from being transferred across state lines for an abortion.

Such variances infuriate abortion opponents who believe Reid is trying to have it both ways — holding true to his own position while protecting his abortion-rights caucus.

Robert Uithoven, a consultant with the campaign of Republican challenger Sue Lowden, said Reid has “cast a lot of votes in the Senate that have been against pro-life groups.”

Who wins a values race?

But as Herzik notes, Nevada’s Republicans should be wary of making abortion rights a campaign issue lest they turn off voters who would prefer that government let women decide the issue for themselves.

“The easiest race Harry Reid ever had was when it was against a social conservative,” said Herzik, referring to Reid’s landslide 2004 campaign against Republican Richard Ziser. “When it became this values race, it became a breeze.”

Ziser has returned to front a November ballot initiative seeking to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

If anything, Reid needs to be working to motivate his Democratic base in the run-up to the 2010 election — the liberal voters who have been deflated by his performance of late. Reid needs Nevada Democrats to come to the polls, not to sit out an election that will be among the most-watched Senate races in the country.

If Reid unveils a Senate bill with strict abortion language as the House has done, this could rouse the left nationally. Progressive groups have shown they will not be shy about publicly criticizing the leader for not standing up for liberal causes.

Ted Miller, the communications director for NARAL, the national abortion rights organization, said the group enjoys a good working relationship with Reid even as it flooded the senator’s office with its online petition last week.

The group is urging Reid to keep the Stupak-Pitts language out of the Senate bill that could be unveiled early this week. Next, once the bill is on the Senate floor, the group will be fighting back expected amendments to restrict abortion.

“Were going to take this step by step,” Miller said.

Juggling voters

Right now, both sides are claiming the other is trying to alter current restrictions, in place since 1976, which ban federal money from being used for abortions.

Abortion opponents say the Stupak-Pitts amendment, named after the two representatives who sponsored it, Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan and Republican Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania, would ensure that women who buy policies on the new health insurance exchange would not be allowed to use any government subsidies for a plan that includes abortion coverage. Further, they say, the amendment would prohibit the proposed government-run insurance plan, which would be one of the options on the exchange, from offering any abortion coverage as part of its policy.

Women who want abortion coverage could buy a separate policy, a rider, paid for out of their own pockets.

But those who support abortion rights and oppose the Stupak-Pitts amendment say women rarely plan ahead for an abortion, and they doubt many companies would offer riders or that women would buy them.

Abortion rights supporters say the new amendment would go too far in altering the status quo, which bans federal funding for abortions. They prefer previous language in the bill that would require any insurance company offering abortion coverage on the health care exchange to not use federal funding — by requiring that companies separate money they receive from the government from that paid by purchasers of policies.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee, believes that when Reid unveils his bill it will not include the strict language his organization wants.

But it’s unclear what will happen if anti-abortion senators face a bill without such restrictions. Reid needs the vote of every Democratic senator — all 60, including the two independents — to advance the bill.

Will Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania or Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the only Democrats to support stricter anti-abortion language in the Senate bill in their committees, be votes that could be lost without such language?

E.J. Dionne, writing in The Washington Post, notes that “Democratic supporters of abortion rights need to accept that their House majority depends on a large cadre of anti-abortion colleagues. They can denounce that reality or they can learn to live with it.”

Reid will need to keep this in mind, along with his own anti-abortion cadre in the Senate, in the debate to come.

Lisa Mascaro can be reached at (202) 662-7436 or at [email protected]