WASHINGTON – With little fanfare, President Barack Obama signed an executive order Wednesday designed to ensure that no federal money can be used for elective abortions under the nation's new health care legislation.
The order had been demanded by a key bloc of anti-abortion Democrats as the price for their support for the health overhaul legislation that narrowly passed the House Sunday night.
Since then it's been criticized by anti-abortion groups who say it has no actual impact other than restating restrictions on abortion funding already in the law. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., leader of the anti-abortion Democrats, insists that's not the case, but 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 media were allowed in the room.
The president signed the order a day after putting his signature on sweeping health care legislation extending coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans over 10 years with a first-time requirement for nearly everyone to carry insurance and with a ban on insurance company practices such as denying coverage to sick people.
Meanwhile, debate was under way in the Senate on a companion bill to the landmark law, with Republican senators forcing Democrats to run a gantlet of politically dicey votes on a long list of amendments. Major components of the "fix-it" legislation include scaling back a tax on high-cost insurance plans opposed by labor unions, eliminating a special Medicaid deal for Nebraska, closing the coverage gap in the Medicare prescription benefit, and imposing higher taxes on upper-income earners.
But Republicans had other ideas. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wants a vote on his amendment to prohibit coverage of Viagra for sex offenders. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, wants savings from Medicare cuts plowed back into the health care program for seniors, instead of being used to expand coverage to the uninsured. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., wants to gut penalties on employers whose workers wind up getting taxpayer-subsidized coverage.
Democrats are vowing to bat down the GOP amendments one-by-one, and also hope Republicans won't succeed with any procedural objections, because any change to the fix-it bill would send it back to the House, a complication Democratic leaders want to avoid.
"All of the amendments we'll take care of. Points of order — we'll see what they do," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"How serious could they be offering an amendment on Viagra for rapists?" Reid said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has put members on notice they may be needed to vote on any changes that get through the Senate, though House leaders also say they don't expect any to be made. The fixes under consideration by the Senate were demanded by House Democrats as their price for passing the mammoth overhaul legislation over the weekend.
In another move to block action by Democrats, Republicans invoked obscure Senate rules that prevent hearings from taking place without unanimous consent, resulting in the cancellation of a number of routine hearings Tuesday and Wednesday.
Approval of the fix-it bill at the end of this week is virtually assured, since it's being debated under fast-track budget rules that allow passage with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes usually required for action in the 100-seat Senate. Democrats control 59 Senate seats.
On the abortion issue, the new health care law tries to maintain a strict separation between taxpayer funds and private premiums that would pay for abortion coverage. No health plan will be required to offer coverage for the procedure. In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries will have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.
Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through a new purchasing exchange. Exceptions would be made for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.
Abortion foes contend that the separation of funds is an accounting gimmick, and in reality taxpayers would be paying for abortion because health plans that cover abortion would be getting federal money.
Obama's executive order, the product of frenzied 11th-hour negotiations involving Stupak's group and members of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, orders federal officials to develop guidelines to carry out the segregation of private and public funds. The order also sets out a mechanism aiming to ensure that community health centers cannot use federal funds for abortions, another concern for the Stupak group.
The executive order did not win over anti-abortion activists or the powerful Catholic bishops, who said it would have no real effect, and it also drew criticism from abortion-rights groups.
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.