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Obama signs order blocking abortion funding

Key to passing health care bill; Senate debates amendments

By Erica Werner
Associated Press / March 25, 2010

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WASHINGTON — With little fanfare, President Obama signed an executive order yesterday designed to ensure that no federal money can be used for elective abortions under the nation’s new health care law.

The order had been demanded by a key bloc of antiabortion Democrats as the price for their support for the health bill that narrowly passed the House Sunday night.

Since then it has been criticized by abortion opponents who say it has no actual impact other than restating restrictions on abortion funding already in the law. Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, the leader of the antiabortion bloc of Democrats, insisted that is not the case. Lawmakers supporting abortion rights did not object to the order because they said it made no difference.

Obama invited Stupak and other lawmakers to the Oval Office for the signing of the order but made no effort to draw attention to it, and no members of the media were allowed in the room.

The president signed the order a day after putting his signature on health care legislation that extends coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans over 10 years, requires nearly every American to carry insurance or face fines, and bans insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions.

Debate was underway in the Senate on a companion bill to the law, with Republican senators forcing Democrats to face a series of politically dicey votes on a long list of amendments. Major components of the “corrections’’ legislation include scaling back a tax on high-cost insurance plans opposed by labor unions, eliminating a special Medicaid deal for Nebraska, closing a coverage gap in the Medicare prescription benefit, and imposing higher taxes on upper-income earners.

Senate Democrats drove toward final passage of a second health care bill, drafted to supplement the first by sweetening benefits for seniors with high prescription drug costs and for lower- to middle-income families who cannot afford the cost of insurance.

The follow-up bill before the Senate included a second triumph for the administration on domestic policy. It generally strips banks and other private insurers of their ability to originate loans to students, in favor of direct government lending. The government’s savings would raise the maximum amount needy students could receive in Pell Grants and pump about $2.6 billion over a decade into historically black and Hispanic colleges. The changes would mean the loss of billions of dollars for student lending giant Sallie Mae as well as large financial institutions such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America.

The bill passed the House on Sunday, and it appeared Reid had as many as 57 votes in hand for its approval, far more than needed. Among 59 Senate Democrats, only Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska announced in advance they would oppose it.

Far outnumbered, Senate Republicans sought votes on politically charged proposals that, while potentially troublesome for Democrats, were doomed to defeat. The first, to roll back the bill’s Medicare cuts, was jettisoned on a vote of 56 to 42; the second, to strip out special projects, was defeated 54 to 43.

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, proposed an amendment barring federal expenditures for supplying Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs to sex offenders and cracking down on fraudulent health spending. Coburn said it would save $650 million a year, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, called it “a crass political stunt,’’ and Democrats turned it aside, 57 to 42.

By 56 to 43, the Senate rejected an amendment by Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, to force Obama and others in the government to obtain insurance coverage through new purchasing exchanges the law will create in 2014, as members of Congress and some staff would. The White House said the move was unnecessary because the president would do so voluntarily, but it was unclear whether the day-old law permitted him to.