WASHINGTON — As the Senate Finance Committee continued to debate its version of a health care overhaul bill Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans clashed over abortion — potentially complicating President Obama's drive for action this fall.
At issue is how far health care legislation should go to prevent insurance companies from offering abortion services to the millions of women who could get taxpayer subsidies to help them pay premiums.
Federal funding of abortions has been prohibited since 1976, when an amendment by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., banned Medicaid from paying for the procedure except in cases of rape, incest or medical necessity.
The bill now before the committee contains provisions that Democrats say would keep federal subsidy dollars from going to cover abortions. Republicans, however, say that the provisions are not strong enough. But an attempt to toughen them went down to defeat, and the confrontation threatened to further inflame debate over the issue.
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Senate Democratic leaders are pushing to get a health care bill to the floor before the end of October, an imperative underscored Wednesday by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who announced that he would cancel the chamber's traditional Columbus Day recess.
Reid is waiting for the finance committee to finish its version of an overhaul before hammering out a final bill for consideration by the full Senate. The committee, headed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is in its second week of debate on the measure. Baucus has said he wants to finish up this week, although it remained unclear whether he could meet that deadline.
The federal government has policies against subsidizing abortion in most of its existing health care programs. The Tricare insurance program for members of the military does not cover abortions. Nor can private insurers who offer plans to federal employees through the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program cover the procedure.
Under the major Democratic proposals being debated on Capitol Hill, millions of Americans with low to moderate incomes could buy their insurance in a new, highly regulated marketplace in which private insurers would offer a variety of health plans.
Many of those people would qualify for federal aid to defray the cost of at least part of their premiums. And because many commercial insurers now offer abortion services as part of their package of benefits, it is likely that many of the plans in these marketplaces also would include abortion benefits.