Wednesday, November 11, 2009

D.J. Tice: An abortion battle? Now that's the status quo

star health insurance

Normal could be the new normal in America.

In politics, nothing unites like defeat. Nothing divides like victory. And no issue compares with abortion for its ability to hijack policy debates and split coalitions like dry stovewood.

So one way to understand the past week's portents is that the Age of Obama hasn't, after all, changed everything. Republicans did predictably well in the off-cycle elections, as out-of-power parties usually do. Meantime, an abortion dispute nearly terminated House Democrats' drive to pass sweeping health care reform.

Situation normal.

Socially conservative Democrats, including northern Minnesotans Collin Peterson and Jim Oberstar, for months had been demanding that the health care overhaul preserve a longstanding ban on federal dollars being used to pay for abortions. Because the legislation expands the federal role in health care, "preserving" the abortion funding ban necessarily meant, in a sense, enlarging it.

This could be one among many irritating ironies ahead for those eager to see more spacious government influence in society. More government means more political strings, which means more disagreeable compromising.

Anti-abortion Democrats disdained House leaders' shell-game idea of compromise. The notion was that people buying insurance with the help of new federal subsidies would pay for abortion coverage out of their own part of the premium, while the subsidized part would pay only for less controversial coverage.

Trouble is, the insurance wouldn't exist at all without the subsidy. It's like trying to chip in for a bottle of wine without paying for any of the alcohol.

The social conservatives held out for a ban on any federal subsidy being used to buy an insurance policy that covers abortion. They prevailed with 64 Democratic votes, Peterson and Oberstar among them. Oberstar later voted for the health care bill as a whole; Peterson didn't.

A third rural Minnesota Democrat, Tim Walz from southern Minnesota, took the delegation's riskiest votes, backing the giant overhaul after voting against the abortion ban. Both votes will be slow roasted by Walz's Republican opponent in next year's election.

Expanding the federal funding ban to cover subsidies takes no prize for consistency or fairness. Many millions of Americans have their health insurance handsomely subsidized by the federal government through the tax exclusion on the employer-paid portion of premiums. Yet they can purchase plans that cover abortion. Why should the new subsidies be more restricted?

Then again, because most who use the new subsidies are currently uninsured, the ban will seldom take away coverage people now have.

But ever since U.S. courts took abortion policy away from the political process, the dueling sides have crossed swords on every field of honor they could find. That people who abhor abortion shouldn't have to pay for it, or that abortion should be treated no differently from any other health care service -- these are matters of principle that could fuel a fight to the finish.

Because that's so, it's notable that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to narrowly win passage for a bill burdened with an abortion ban liberals in her caucus detest. It suggests that progressives may have grown politically pragmatic, seeing an overall victory on moving American health care sharply toward the European, government-centered model as being worth a setback, at least temporarily, on a secondary abortion front.

Such political realism is what it takes to hold large governing majorities together. If Democrats have really mastered it, something will have changed after all -- something that could give Republicans fits.

But it was a close run thing in the House, and assembling a filibuster-proof Senate majority will be tougher. The abortion dispute is only one of many hurdles remaining for the Democrats' plan, but it's a challenging one.

Surprisingly normal.