By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 19, 2009 ( – The final clear obstacle for President Obama's health care overhaul suddenly toppled Saturday morning as news broke that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) had agreed on a series of compromises on abortion and other issues that would allow him to support the bill.

Democrat leadership ended a 13-hour negotiating session late Friday night after reaching a deal with Nelson, modifying the bill's abortion language and carving out favors such as additional federal Medicaid funding for his home state.  The deal appears to give Democrats the final vote they need to begin a series of votes, expected to begin with a cloture vote on the manager's amendment late Sunday night and end 7 p.m. Christmas Eve.

The full text of the final manager's amendment has been made available on the Senate Democrats' web page.

The abortion compromise, beginning on page 38, does not keep intact the Hyde-amendment restrictions represented in Nelson's original amendment.  Instead, the new compromise allows states to opt out of providing abortion coverage through the exchange, and adds another funds-segregating scheme to government-appropriated monies funding abortion coverage. 

Pro-life analysts at the Family Research Council and the National Right to Life Committee agree that the compromise leaves in place a fundamental shift in U.S. policy by instigating federal funding for elective abortion.

In addition, the manager's amendment strikes the public option and replaces it with a program similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) run by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  However, unlike the FEHBP, the Director of OPM will contract with health insurance companies to provide insurance that includes abortion.

The new bill also will grant special federal funding for Nebraska to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income individuals, in addition to other concessions requested by Nelson.

When asked if he was prepared to support the bill with the new changes, Nelson answered: “Yeah.”

“Change is never easy,” Nelson said to reporters. “I truly believe this legislation will stand the test of time. The lives of millions Americans will be improved.”  He also said he believes “we have accomplished that goal” on maintaining Hyde-amendment restrictions in the new amendment, and that he “reserve(s) the right to vote” against cloture if further changes are not to his liking.

Nelson's statements mark a drastic departure from his tenor in earlier statements regarding his expectations for the bill.

“My vote is not for sale – period,” Nelson told the Associated Press Wednesday in response to a rumor he had been threatened with the loss of Offutt Air Force Base if he voted against the health bill.

Nelson had also appeared to be settled in holding out for Hyde-amendment restrictions, indicating that it would be “a tall order” to find a compromise he would agree to besides his own amendment.

“There are some discussions … to see if there is some sort of a compromise [on abortion],” he said after his amendment was struck down last Wednesday. “Quite honestly, I don't know how they can do that, but I certainly don't want to foreclose any innovation that some members have, but that is a possibility.”  Nelson added that he would consider an option “that satisfies all the stakeholders here.”

Tom McClusky, the Family Research Council's Vice President for Government Affairs, said that the new abortion compromise was “the same gimmicky stuff” as the bill's original language, and expressed disappointment in Nelson's turnaround.

“I hope it's not too late for Sen. Nelson to not sell out his pro-life principles,” McClusky told (LSN) Saturday morning.  “No senator or organization that supports this manager's amendment can by any means call themselves pro-life, because this would make the federal government brokers of the abortion industry.”

The National Right to Life Committee's Douglas Johnson agreed that the new abortion deal is “light years removed from the Stupak-Pitts Amendment” that mirrored Nelson's original amendment, and warned that NRLC would score votes for cloture on the bill as votes in favor of federal abortion funding.

Even besides the abortion funding, the NRLC notes that the bill remains fatally flawed in its tendency to promote health care rationing.

While the bill appears to have overcome the abortion hurdle in the Senate, Rep. Bart Stupak re-affirmed this week that his group of 39 fellow Democrats were still committed to taking down any bill that did not honor the Hyde amendment. 

Also, although Nelson had been seen as the clearest Democrat holdout against the bill, support is still considered shaky among some Democrat and Democrat-caucusing lawmakers, such as Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Jim Webb (D-Va.).  Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), long considered one of the leading pro-life Democrats in the Senate, had been cooperating with Democrat leadership to come up with an abortion compromise that would secure Nelson's vote without cutting off federal abortion funding.

Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121

Ben Nelson, D-Neb. 
Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. 
Olympia Snowe, R-Maine
Jim Webb, D-Va.  202-224-4024

Click here for National Right to Life Committee's resource for contacting U.S. senators (scroll to bottom).

See related coverage:

Casey Working with Reid to Topple Nelson's Abortion Hang-up