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Head-counting begins as Obama prepares address

WASHINGTON (BP)–As President Obama and White House officials put the final touches on a major health speech to Congress and the nation Wednesday, increasing scrutiny is being placed on a significant number of House moderate and conservative Democrats who could determine the bill’s future.

Their concerns run the gamut but focus largely on several areas, including the package’s costs, its controversial public option and the fact it apparently would result in abortion coverage (as the House bill would).

Head-counting in the House and Senate will become more and more important in the coming days, particularly if Democrats try to pass a bill without Republican support.

The Hill newspaper in Washington reported Tuesday that 23 House Democrats already have said they would oppose the health care bill. Democrats enjoy a 256-178 edge in the chamber, meaning that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can afford to lose only 38 votes from her caucus. Some in that group of 23 say their opposition is firm, while others are less committed (Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, says he can’t support the bill “in its current form”).

To further complicate the numbers game, a group of 19 House Democrats in June sent Pelosi a letter saying they wouldn’t support any bill “unless it explicitly excludes abortion from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan.” (Seven of those members are listed on The Hill’s list of 23.)

But it’s not clear how many of those 19 members still hold that position in light of abortion language that was added to the House bill after their letter was sent. Although pro-choicers touted the language as meeting the letter’s requests, pro-lifers — including some House Democrats — called the new language a sham. Rep. John Murtha, D.-Pa., is among those whose name was on the letter but who now says his concern has been met. “Every bill I’ve seen has the … language that prohibits [paying for] abortion,” he told constituents recently, according to The Tribune-Democrat. Yet Murtha still said when weighing his other concerns about health care reform, “I haven’t seen a bill I would vote for.”

All ears in the abortion debate will be listening Wednesday to whether Obama directly addresses the issue in his speech, which is being touted as one that will detail what he wants in a plan. Although he backed government-funding of abortion in health care during his presidential campaign, as president he’s been fairly quiet. Obama has brushed off pro-lifers charges as “fabrications” but hasn’t provided any step-by-step counter on the issue, as he’s done on other areas of health care. And, the White House’s own website has 14 videos that seek to debunk various health care “myths,” although none deal with abortion.

“The president may have decided that a thorough explanation was too complicated — and the subject is not simple,” syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in a weekend column. “Or perhaps, as some have suggested, he simply doesn’t understand it himself. But Obama figured wrong if he thought he could deflect concerns about one of the nation’s most divisive issues with a casual dismissal….”

Pro-lifers, Parker said, are planning a major effort “to stop federal funding of abortion as allowed under proposed health care legislation.”

“Obama has partly invited this havoc by not being completely forthright about how health care reform, as currently proposed, would provide taxpayer funding for abortion,” she wrote.

Under the leading House plan, elective abortions would be covered in a government-run public option by using the premium money of enrollees. Pro-choicers say this facet of the bill would prevent the government from financing abortions. Critics call the bill a bookkeeping sham and say common sense dictates that under a public plan, all the money is federal money.

Private plans receiving federal subsidies also could cover abortion, but only if companies segregate their money and don’t use federal money for abortions. (In other words, all abortions would have to be financed through private premiums.)

Amendments that would have explicitly prevented abortion coverage were defeated in House and Senate committees.

“The health care legislation being pushed forward by President Obama would create a federally run insurance plan that would pay for elective abortion with government funds,” Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said in a statement Tuesday. “The legislation also would provide massive tax-based subsidies to purchase private insurance plans that would cover elective abortions. Both of these new programs would represent drastic breaks with decades of federal policy against funding abortions in government-subsidized health programs.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, asked late last month, “If, as the president alleges, abortion is not to be considered a covered procedure in any government option, what’s the problem with specifically saying so by excluding it in the legislative language? I would encourage President Obama to pick up the phone and call his party’s leaders in the House and tell them to drop their opposition to specifically excluding abortion as a covered procedure in any proposed legislation.”

Land and other conservative leaders will take part in a press conference Wednesday where 1.2 million signatures opposing health care in its current form will be presented to legislators.
Compiled by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press. To read The Hill’s list of 23 Democrats, visit http://thehill.com/homenews/house/57565-already-23-dems-have-said-they-will-vote-no-on-reform. To read the June list of 19 pro-life Democrats, visit http://www.usnews.com/blogs/god-and-country/2009/07/01/conservative-democrats-warn-against-funding-abortion-in-healthcare-reform.html. For a Q&A about the controversy over health care and abortion click here.

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