California senators back health care bill despite abortion limits

WASHINGTON — As the Senate prepares to pass a historic health care bill early Thursday, California's two Democratic senators find themselves facing something of a dilemma.

The problem: Even though Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have near-perfect records in backing abortion rights, both are ready to cast votes that are guaranteed to anger abortion-rights groups.

The reason: The $871 billion bill includes language that critics say will restrict the right to abortions and represents a big step backward for women.

Much of the criticism is aimed at Boxer, who took a leadership role in negotiations over the final bill. She decided to accept the new language only when it became apparent that the bill would not pass without it.

"I don't like it either, but this was the only way to get the bill passed," Boxer said in an interview Wednesday.

Boxer and other Senate leaders agreed to the abortion compromise language authored by Sen. Ben Nelson as part of an effort to get the Nebraska Democrat to provide the 60th and final vote required for passage of the health care bill.

In an attempt to restrict federal funds for abortions, the compromise includes an "abortion opt-out" clause, allowing state legislatures to decide whether their insurance exchanges will permit plans that allow abortion coverage.

In addition, those who choose a health plan that includes abortion coverage would have to write two separate premium checks — one for abortion and one for all other services.

Critics say the latter requirement would stigmatize abortion coverage. But Boxer said it's only an "accounting procedure" that will do nothing to restrict coverage.

Boxer, who was one of the featured speakers at an abortion-rights rally on Capitol Hill only three weeks ago, is suddenly on the opposite side of many longtime allies.

Last year, both Boxer and Feinstein scored 100 percent ratings from groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. And their high ratings date back to 1992, when both were elected to the Senate in what became known as the Year of the Woman.

Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, labeled the bill "a sweeping anti-abortion law" and called on the Senate to reject it.

The heads of the 190-member Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Louise Slaughter of New York, said the bill is "offensive to people who believe in choice."

And Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said the bill "has sold out women and, by virtue of its dismissive language against women, awakened a sleeping giant." She said the bill would merely shift the abortion debate to statehouses. She added that it's "unconscionable" to allow state-run exchanges to opt out of abortion coverage even if a woman's life is in danger.

While abortion-rights groups are criticizing the compromise, it's also drawing fire from groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who say it doesn't do enough to restrict abortions.

Boxer said she must be doing something right, because she's hearing criticism from both opponents and supporters of abortion rights.

"It's a fair compromise," she said.

The senator is not without her supporters.

Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, a key backer of abortion rights in the House, said Boxer worked on "a common-sense compromise approach to this challenging issue."

And even the White House took note of Boxer's high-profile role in the negotiations, citing her involvement as evidence that the compromise can hold as the health care bill moves to a House-Senate conference committee.

"Barbara Boxer, who is one of the great advocates for abortion rights in the Senate, was in the room when this was thrashed out," said David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos. "And I think she paid a great deal of attention to the details of this."

Feinstein declined to be interviewed, but her spokesman, Gil Duran, released a statement that said: "Neither side is happy, but it is a fair compromise that allows the health care reform bill to advance."

Boxer said she understands the frustration of abortion-rights backers. But she said the health care bill will benefit many women who now can't even afford to see doctors.

"Fifty-two percent of women don't seek the health care they need," she said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this week. "They either put it off or they never get it because they may not be insured or they are afraid of the co-pays. They are afraid of what it would cost. They may have limits on their policies. We need to change that."

Thursday's vote ends a grueling stretch for the Senate, which has been in session every day since Nov. 30, with senators working late nights and weekends.

After voting Thursday, Boxer said she'll fly to Northern California, where she's due to arrive at 3:30 p.m., just in time for a Christmas Eve gathering with her husband, children and grandchildren.