WASHINGTON – A moderate Democrat whose vote could be crucial said Thursday an attempted Senate compromise on abortion is unsatisfactory, raising doubts about whether the chamber can pass President Barack Obama's health care overhaul by Christmas.
"As it is, without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient," Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a key holdout on the health care bill, said in a statement after first making his concerns known to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Nelson said there were positive improvements dealing with teen pregnancy and adoption, and that he was open to further negotiations. But in a radio interview earlier in the day with KLIN in Lincoln, Nebraska, Nelson also said that abortion wasn't his only concern and he didn't see how the Christmas deadline was achievable.
The development came with Senate leaders working round the clock trying to finalize their 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill in time for a final vote on Christmas Eve. Nelson is emerging as a major obstacle — perhaps the only remaining one — since Democrats need his vote to have the 60 necessary to overcome Republican stalling tactics.
"Senator Reid will continue to work with Senator Nelson and other senators as we work to get 60 votes," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
At the same time, liberals were criticizing the Senate bill for lacking a government-run insurance option, with former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean calling the measure a boon for insurance companies. Andrew Stern, head of the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union, said he was deeply disappointed in the bill but stopped short of urging rejection.
The Obama administration and its allies — including former President Bill Clinton — pushed back on the criticism. Clinton said that while the bill isn't perfect, inaction would be a mistake.
"Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder, both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal, and economic health of our country," he said in a statement in which he alluded to his own failed effort to remake health care in the 1990s.
The attempted abortion compromise offered to Nelson was written by another anti-abortion Democrat, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, among others, and was an attempt to secure Nelson's support for the health care bill while also keeping liberals on board. It's the Democrats' latest attempt to strictly separate public and private money that could pay for abortion coverage under a remade health care system in which many lower-income people would be using new federal subsidies to buy health insurance.
Several previous attempts have been dismissed by Roman Catholic bishops and anti-abortion groups as accounting gimmicks, and this one looks like it may fare no better. The language has not been made public but is already drawing criticism from outside groups.
Speaking to reporters, Casey declined to directly address Nelson's objections but said he would keep trying for a compromise.
"We're trying to get this right," Casey said. "I've had ideas on the table for a while now, I'm still working through them and we'll keep talking to anyone who wants to discuss it."
According to Casey, the proposed compromise included a two-year increase, from $10,000 to $11,000, in an adoption tax credit; $250 million over 10 years in new funding to help pregnant teens and others with alternatives to abortion and stronger "conscience clause" language to give protections to health care providers who don't want to perform abortions. Casey declined to go into additional detail, but according to anti-abortion groups and others briefed on the language, another element would allow individuals opposed to abortion to seek assurances that none of their premium dollars would pay for that service.
That provision, in particular, angered anti-abortion activists.
Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, said that in her understanding the new language "still allows federal subsidies for plans that cover abortion on demand, which is entirely unacceptable."
"The proposed opt-out clause is particularly offensive," Schmit-Albin said. "The federal government would treat abortion on demand as if it was really health care, and then allow people to apply for status as conscientious objectors? Give me a break."
The abortion issue also threatened to derail health care legislation in the House, before Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to the demands of anti-abortion Democrats, who added stringent restrictions to the bill that infuriated liberals.
In the House bill, any health plan that receives any federal subsidies could not offer abortion coverage. The Senate language as filed — and apparently under the attempted compromise — would allow federal subsidies to go to health plans that offer abortion coverage but would attempt to ensure that only private money went for the procedures.