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Holdout Democrat in health debate rejects compromise

Nelson’s stance on abortion issue threatens passage

Senator Ben Nelson said abortion isn’t his only concern and he doesn’t think the Christmas deadline is achievable. Senator Ben Nelson said abortion isn’t his only concern and he doesn’t think the Christmas deadline is achievable.
By Jeff Zeleny and Robert Pear
New York Times / December 18, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The White House and Senate Democratic leaders seem willing to give Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson just about anything he wants to win his support of major health care legislation. Anything, that is, but the item at the top of Nelson’s wish-list: airtight restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions.

The bid to win Nelson’s support has become a race against the clock. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has developed plans for a series of votes beginning at 1 a.m. Monday and round-the-clock Senate sessions intended to meet his deadline of completing the health care bill before Christmas.

But Reid is still at least one vote short of the 60 he needs to move the bill ahead, and as much as anyone, Nelson appears to hold the legislation’s fate in his hands.

Other Democrats, liberals as well as centrists, have yet to commit to vote for the bill. And the abortion provisions are just one of numerous concerns that Nelson has expressed about it.

But the biggest obstacle seems to be his demand for tighter restrictions, which are being strongly resisted by a bloc of senators who support abortion rights.

Must-pass legislation that wraps up the bulk of the remaining congressional agenda besides health care was expected to easily clear a Senate hurdle early today, according to the Associated Press.

Anchored by a $626 billion Pentagon funding bill, the measure also carries short-term extensions of unemployment benefits, highway and transit funding, key pieces of the antiterror Patriot Act and prevents doctors from shouldering a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.

The timing of the 1 a.m. vote - which would defeat GOP stalling tactics and force a final vote to clear the bill for President Obama tomorrow morning - has been governed more by the brawl over health care than significant opposition to the defense measure or its additional baggage, the AP reported.

Nelson yesterday issued a statement saying a compromise on abortion language drafted at his behest was “not sufficient.’’

Asked by a home-state radio station on Thursday if Democrats could meet their deadline, Nelson said he had concerns beyond the abortion language and did not think the deadline was achievable.

“I can’t tell you that they couldn’t come up with something that would be satisfactory on abortion between now and then and solve all the other issues that I have raised to them,’’ he said. “But I don’t see how.’’

Nelson, a former governor, state insurance commissioner and insurance company executive now serving his second Senate term, is the focus of increasingly intense entreaties by Reid and the White House. He has met personally with Obama three times in the last nine days, and daily with Reid.

Pete Rouse, a senior White House adviser, has been assigned specifically to address Nelson’s concerns. Senator Bob Casey, a freshman Democrat from Pennsylvania and a prominent opponent of abortion rights, was tapped to devise some sort of compromise language on coverage for abortions to bring Nelson on board.

But Casey’s initial efforts have come up short, though he said he would keep trying. “I want to be a fountain of ideas on this topic,’’ he said.

To help divine Nelson’s thinking, a wide array of Democrats have reached out to him in recent days, including former senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. In the calls, Nelson has not disclosed how he is leaning, but his friends say they can sense the pressure he is facing.

One potentially crucial factor is Nelson’s fondness for the president, his friends say. When he was running for reelection three years ago, there was only one Democratic Senate colleague he invited to Nebraska: Obama. A year later, Nelson was among the first senators to endorse Obama for president.

“You never like to disappoint a friend, but that friendship only goes so far,’’ Kerrey said.

“I don’t think it will cause him to vote for the bill, if he believes on balance that the bill shouldn’t be passed.’’

Nelson said that Obama “made a strong case’’ when they met one-on-one Tuesday, “but it remains to be seen if it was compelling.’’

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