WASHINGTON - Just when President Barack Obama is striving to unite Democratic lawmakers for one last push to pass his health care overhaul, the divisive politics of abortion threaten to tear the party apart.
At issue is a Senate health care bill House Democrats are being asked to approve in a complicated maneuver seen as Obama's last chance to get sweeping legislation expanding coverage and revamping the health insurance market. The dilemma is that House Democrats on both sides of the abortion debate have strong disagreements with the way the Senate bill attempts to restrict taxpayer funding for abortion. And there's no easy way to fix it later.
Although each chamber is also supposed to pass a companion package of agreed-upon changes, abortion restrictions may not meet the test for inclusion, a requirement that such items be primarily related to the budget.
Both sides are negotiating to prevent an impasse that could undo the health care bill. But the talks could lead down a dark tunnel with no exit.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi vented her frustration Thursday, telling reporters she will not stand for health care legislation getting dragged down in a battle over abortion. "This is not about abortion," said Pelosi (D-Calif.). "This is a bill about providing quality affordable health care for all Americans."
She may not have a choice, says a leading abortion foe. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) says he and a dozen fellow Democrats who supported the House bill will vote against it this time unless the Senate language is replaced with stiffer restrictions previously adopted by the House.
The House health care bill passed by 220-215 last November, only after Pelosi was forced to give Stupak a floor vote that incorporated his strict abortion funding provision in the measure.
Nothing has changed, Stupak said. "I don't think they have the votes to pass it," he said.
It's not clear, however, that every lawmaker who voted with Stupak the first time will stick with him.