Casey seeks middle ground on abortion issue
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WASHINGTON -- Deal-cutting and compromise are essential arts in legislating, and the health care reform bill now being debated in the Senate is no exception.
But on abortion, which has become perhaps the biggest threat to the $848 billion overhaul of the health insurance system, middle ground is hard to come by.
That's not stopping Sen. Bob Casey Jr. from trying.
The Pennsylvania Democrat has emerged as one of two anti-abortion voices in the Senate Democratic caucus. The other, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, has said he won't vote for the bill without abortion language that mimics its cousin in the House of Representatives. A last-minute push from the Conference of Catholic Bishops and a bloc of anti-abortion Democrats secured House language preventing anyone who receives a government health insurance subsidy from buying a plan that covers abortions.
Mr. Casey, however, repeatedly has said he won't draw a line in the sand on the issue, making him a sure supporter of the bill regardless of the abortion language.
"You have to weigh that against the urgency, or I think necessity, of getting a bill passed," Mr. Casey said.
It becomes harder to pass without Mr. Nelson's vote, but an amendment modeled on the House bill -- which was viciously denounced by abortion rights groups -- will have a tough time passing the Senate, where anti-abortion Democrats are rare.
So Mr. Casey has become a central figure in talking to Democratic leadership, the White House and others about how to navigate the potential impasse.
"Sen. Casey from the start has been one of the most constructive players in the health care debate," said Jim Kessler, of the progressive think tank Third Way and a former staffer for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
"He's one of the few pro-life Democrats who can talk to all sides, and it puts him in a very unique position. I don't think it's just someone that provides cover. I think he can search for language that not every side will love, but they will support."
Rick Santorum, a conservative and outspoken anti-abortion Catholic whom Mr. Casey unseated in 2006, said the search for a compromise on abortion is futile.
"You're either going to fund abortions or you're not going to fund abortions," Mr. Santorum said.
"There are not a lot of places to compromise. This is a zero-sum game. ... It doesn't matter if Casey is behind it or not. What matters is whether National Right to Life or the Council of Catholic Bishops put their imprimatur on it."
Those two groups oppose the current Senate bill's abortion stance as vociferously as NARAL Pro-Choice America rejects the House amendment, drafted by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and co-sponsored by Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie.
At issue is whether taxpayer money funds abortions, something not permitted under current federal law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's bill specifies that no federal money would go to abortions, but it mandates that at least one insurance plan in the newly created health insurance exchanges cover abortions and at least one not offer the coverage.
Anti-abortion groups argue that this amounts to a back-door public funding of abortions, since participants in the exchange could use federal subsidies to buy abortion coverage. Abortion rights groups argue that preventing any health insurance company in the exchanges from offering abortion coverage would severely restrict access to abortions, especially for poor women.
Mr. Casey said the current language, in his opinion, still amounts to federal abortion funding and he will work with Mr. Nelson to change it.
The debate puts the first-term senator in an uncomfortable place. His father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, challenged Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court and was infamously denied a chance to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention because of his anti-abortion views.
The mild-mannered son de-emphasizes the issue and does not adopt the bellicose language of the interest groups, but his name alone gives him a bigger profile.
"Simply because of [his father] his reputation carries a lot of power in Washington, and I think he'll get more of an ear than ... a young senator in Washington might otherwise have on a big issue like this," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Last week, Mr. Casey worked with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., after an amendment she proposed about expanding preventive care for women raised concerns that it could cover abortions. Mr. Casey and Ms. Mikulski added language specifying clearly that the amendment did not apply to abortions.
"That was one instance where we can work together," Mr. Casey said. "I would admit that's rare, but it's achievable, even in Washington."
It's still not his favorite topic.
On Friday, Mr. Casey spoke at a news conference to push a plan to extend unemployment benefits. Afterward, he was quickly surrounded by a group of reporters and peppered with abortion questions.
Mr. Casey repeated his well-worn positions and his desire for a compromise, then was off to his next appointment. As he walked out, he was asked whether he was sick of answering abortion questions every day.
"Part of being a legislator," he replied.
First Published December 7, 2009 12:00 am