For the past few days, I’ve intended to write about the efforts to develop an abortion compromise in the Senate health reform bill. Really, I have. My editors certainly wanted me to write about it. But every time I sat down to draft something about the details of the compromise and what it would do, I couldn’t get past one basic fact: there was no possible abortion compromise that could ever win Ben Nelson’s vote. We could pretend otherwise, but it just wasn’t so.
We know that because Nelson himself has said so–and said it again for good measure today in an interview with a Nebraska radio station. Via Politico: “Even if abortion is addressed to his satisfaction, ‘that is not enough’ for Nelson to commit to voting for the bill, he said. On his conversations with President Barack Obama, Nelson said they haven’t talked about abortion.”
Of course, over the weekend, Nelson hinted on “Face the Nation” that some tinkering with the abortion language could win him over. So pro-life Democratic Senator Bob Casey developed a compromise that would have eliminated current language in the bill that requires states to offer at least one plan that covers abortion and one that does not, and it strengthened conscience protections for institutions and health workers that oppose abortion. It also included a number of provisions from Casey’s “Pregnant Women Support Act” that are intended to reduce abortion rates by providing economic and social supports to pregnant women who want to carry their babies to term but fear they cannot afford it.
None of that mattered, though. One red flag should have been the fact that Nelson sent Casey’s proposed language to anti-abortion groups in Nebraska for their review. There’s nothing wrong with running legislative language by people who closely cover the issue–pro-choice politicians do the same thing all the time–but it does indicate that what’s at stake here is not Nelson’s personal comfort with the separation of government funds from abortion procedures so much as the comfort of interest groups with his pro-life credentials. And that makes compromise difficult–again, as it would if this was instead Barbara Boxer waiting for sign-off from abortion rights advocates. Interest groups exist to protect their line in the sand. There was virtually no scenario in which anti-abortion groups were going to say: “Looks good to us, Ben! Go ahead and vote yea!”
So now we’re back where we started. Unless he can win over Snowe or Collins, Harry Reid needs Nelson’s vote. But it remains completely unclear what he’d need to do to get it.
UPDATE: This passage from today’s NYT piece on health reform negotiations captures some of the issue here:
[Nelson] also said he was concerned that the bill would raise taxes, impose costly new requirements on states and reduce access to health care by curbing Medicare payments to some providers, including nursing homes and home-care agencies.
On the other hand, Mr. Nelson said, he wants to help people get affordable coverage, and the bill would do that.
Yeah, that’s a real sticky wicket, huh? It’s the problem with big, complicated pieces of legislation. They involve trade-offs. You get some things you like, you have to give on other things. Or you don’t, and you vote no. It’s possible that Nelson is really truly agonizing about all of this and just honestly doesn’t know what it would take for him to feel comfortable supporting health reform. It’s also possible that he’s just not that complicated and simply likes being invited onto the Sunday shows and wants to stretch out the attention a leeeeeeeettle bit longer.