One month after Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) stunned pro-lifers across the country by casting the crucial vote allowing the health care bill to pass the Senate, the beleaguered Democrat caused a stir when he arrived unexpectedly at a private meeting of pro-life leaders Wednesday to explain his reasoning and insist that he was still devoted to their cause.
The atmosphere of the room grew tense, however, as it became clear that Nelson had not come to apologize for casting the 60th “yes” vote that dashed the hopes of pro-life leaders counting on the senator to stop the abortion-expanding bill in its tracks. Instead Nelson rebuffed the idea that he caved on his pro-life position, and said that the “compromise” language that he had offered just before the final senate vote — which segregated the taxpayer subsidy monies funding abortion-providing insurance plans — allowed Nelson to “hold true to my pro-life principles” in voting for the measure.
Nelson opened his prepared remarks by stating, “I haven’t changed one bit on the principles that you and I share, that every human life is precious and needs to be protected.” He defended his decision to pass the senate bill with weaker abortion language, saying he was saving “leverage” for a later conference committee vote. At that point, he said, he would have insisted on the stronger language of the Nelson/Hatch/Casey amendment that the Senate had earlier rejected.
Cryptically, Nelson also suggested that Republicans were failing to be adequately pro-life by not working harder to pass the health care overhaul. Pro-life leaders should “lobby [Republicans] for life,” he said, in hopes that “just one pro-life Republican” would step up to offer a vote for the bill if it included the Hyde amendment.
“We wouldn’t need all Republicans to stand up for what would be right, we’d need just one,” said Nelson. “It would take just one pro-life Republican to stand up and say, ‘I’ll insist that this bill be truly pro-life, and if it is, then I’ll support it on cloture. … The 60th vote would be the pro-life vote.”
Nelson went on to argue that the language he agreed to just prior to announcing his support for the bill, known as the Nelson language, “would not allow public money to pay for abortion.” “Now I know some don’t think that the senate language went far enough, and I respect their views, though I disagree,” he added.
Both the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came out strongly against the health care bill that included the Nelson language, saying it still presented a vast expansion of abortion in other respects as well as a threat to conscience rights. When the deal was announced in December, Douglas Johnson of the NRLC called Nelson’s language “light years removed from the Stupak-Pitts Amendment” that had put an end to federal abortion funding in the House bill.
In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Nelson expressed frustration when one pro-life leader suggested that Democrat Rep. Bart Stupak, unlike Nelson, stood his ground for adequate pro-life language.
“Excuse me, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t stand my ground,” said Nelson. “We might have a difference of opinion about the language that was written, but there are some others who do believe that that was written in a way that it did bar the use of federal funds. It may not have been the language people preferred, I understand.
“But I’m not going to stand here and hear that I didn’t stand my ground, because I believe I did.”
Kristen Day of Democrats for Life interjected to defend Nelson and point out Nelson’s efforts to get “the best language we could” in the final bill.
“We’ve spoken quite a lot, and even over the Christmas break, we had the pro-life Democrats on the House side, Senator Nelson, all getting together, all trying to find a way to get the best language we could in the final bill, and Senator Nelson has really been a huge part of doing this,” said Day.
When in December Nelson suddenly began to indicate that the bill’s passage was his top priority (earlier statements indicated steadfast loyalty to Hyde-amendment restrictions) many pro-life leaders expressed shock. Longtime friend and associate Julie Schmidt-Albin of Nebraska Right to Life was first among them.
“This is just a craven betrayal, I don’t know how else to call it,” Schmit-Albin had told LifeSiteNews.com in December.
But Douglas Johnson, who was present at the Wednesday meeting, said he felt Nelson’s decision was consistent with his earlier position.
“He always made it clear that he was concerned with a whole list of issues. Abortion was on the list. But he also had other things – and now the whole world knows what some of those things were,” Johnson told LSN.
Speaking about Nelon’s late-night meeting with Democrat leaders just hours before changing his position on the bill, Johnson said, “With just a couple other people in the room, they sort of got focused on this one problem (abortion) – tunnel vision – came up with what they thought was a clever solution to that one problem.”
“They basically said, ‘if we ask what the Right to Life groups what they think of this, they’re not going to like it, so we’re just going to have to do it, and they’ll come to see the merit of it later,” said Johnson. “Well, we don’t see the merit of it, but he did it.
“I wish he didn’t.”