WASHINGTON — Abortion-rights groups, outflanked and outnumbered in the health debate, are scrambling to regain lost ground after the House passed a health bill with strict abortion limits.
They're blanketing Capitol Hill with lobbyists, petitions, letters and phone calls in efforts to defeat the restrictions in the Senate, where debate could begin in a few days. They also have a larger goal: to prove that with their Democratic allies in control of the White House and both congressional chambers — but increasingly appealing to conservative voters who back abortion limits — they still have clout.
It's an uphill battle after the House approved health legislation that bars a new government-run insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother, and prohibits any health plan that receives federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage.
Lawmakers who support abortion rights watched helplessly, lacking the votes to prevail, as fellow Democrats who oppose abortion joined with Republicans to put the curbs in place, prodded to action by Catholic bishops and anti-abortion groups.
"Our phones were ringing off the hook," said Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who hosted a hastily called strategy meeting last week where abortion-rights and women's groups scrambled to regroup. "We're not going to have health care reform off the backs of women — this isn't what we've all spent our lives for."
By the time prominent abortion-rights supporters were summoned to the White House on Wednesday to meet with top aides, they were livid — although the president's team was quick to point out that their ire shouldn't be directed toward Obama.
We're your friends and the president is pro-choice, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel reminded the group of 15 or so women. There's no need for anger here, senior adviser and Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett offered, according to people knowledgeable about the session, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussion was confidential.
Still, the episode exposed a rift the health debate has opened between a president and Democratic congressional leaders and a key interest group struggling to maintain its influence.