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3 days from vote, pro-life groups mount pressure

WASHINGTON (BP)–House Democratic leaders Thursday began a 72-hour countdown to a dramatic Sunday vote on the Senate health care bill, a proposal that is opposed by the nation’s leading pro-life groups and which likely will pass or fail by only a handful of votes.

Democratic leaders had been awaiting a score on the bill’s changes by the Congressional Budget Office, which issued a preliminary report Thursday morning estimating the overall bill would cost $940 billion over 10 years and reduce the deficit by $138 billion over the same period. With the CBO numbers in hand, Democrats unveiled the bill’s proposed changes, which they had promised would be public for 72 hours before the House takes a vote. None of the changes pertain to abortion.

But pro-life groups are less concerned about CBO numbers than the bill’s impact on the nation’s abortion rate, which they argue could dramatically increase if the bill passes the House. The bill changes longstanding federal policy by allowing tax dollars to fund insurance plans that cover abortion. It also appropriates $7 billion to the nation’s 1,200-plus community health centers without stating that the money cannot be used for abortions, the groups say. Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, supports the bill and argued it would “significantly increase access to reproductive health care.”

Pro-life groups are turning up the pressure on like-minded Democrats, arguing the vote is a monumental one for representatives’ careers and encouraging their constituents to call their House member. National Right to Life sent a memo to House members March 5 stating plainly that “a House member who votes for the Senate bill would forfeit a plausible claim to pro-life credentials.” Local pro-life chapters also are involved, including Tennessee Right to Life, which said in an e-mail to constituents Thursday that four representatives — Tennessee’s Lincoln Davis, Jim Cooper, Bart Gordon and John Tanner — would “cast key votes.”

Likewise, the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List recently began polling in 19 key districts where self-proclaimed Democratic pro-lifers reside. It sent out e-mails Wednesday highly critical of two Democrats — Dale Kildee of Michigan and James Oberstar of Minnesota — who indicated they would support the bill.

“Congressman Oberstar can no longer call himself ‘pro- life.’ He has set himself with the likes of NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood, and has betrayed his pro-life principles and his constituents,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “… Congressman Oberstar has traded the lives of the unborn. He’s made this choice to his own political peril.”

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also sent out an e-mail, saying, “… if you are opposed to the health care bill, please tell your congressman to vote against the bill or any procedure that would advance the bill in the House.”

Neither side of the debate knows if Democrats have the votes, and various independent counters showed it to be razor-thin. With 431 representatives currently in the House, the magic number either to pass or defeat the bill is 216 — assuming that everyone is present. All 178 Republicans are expected to oppose it. With 253 Democrats in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi can withstand only 37 defections from her caucus, which would give her a 216-215 victory. If 38 Democrats vote “no,” the bill would be defeated.

CNN reported Thursday there were 27 firm Democratic no votes, although that number did not include Rep. Michael Arcuri, D.-N.Y., who said Thursday he would vote no. The Hill newspaper reported there were 37 Democrats who were either “firm,” “leaning,” or “likely” to vote no. A total of 49 Democrats, The Hill said, were undecided. Yet MSNBC’s First Read webpage painted a more optimistic scenario for Democrats, reporting that Democrats were “fewer than five votes away from 216.”

The bill’s changes — contained in a separate bill from the health care bill itself — are at the heart of the controversy because Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to use reconciliation to pass the changes with a simple majority vote. The Senate passed the health care bill in December, and the two chambers soon began working out the differences between the Senate version and the House version, which had passed in November. But that strategy was tossed out the window in January when Republicans won an upset U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat, denying Democrats the necessary 60 votes within their caucus to overcome a GOP filibuster. Democrats then began considering reconciliation.
Compiled by Michael Foust an assistant editor of Baptist Press. To read a Q&A on abortion and the health care bill, click here. House members can be contacted through the capitol switchboard (202-224-3121) or through House.gov, where their local office numbers can be found.

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