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In the final push for passage of the House health care reform legislation, Democrats held-up their own bill as they fought over the potential for federally funded abortions. House leadership finally caved-in to moderates who are against reproductive rights, giving them the opportunity to re-write the legislation “on-the-fly” during open debate.

Though the Democrat majority has a wide margin of 40 votes over the Republican minority, they are taking nothing for granted as the vote on health care reform approaches. As Republicans trumpet the news that at least 21 Democrats have announced they will vote against the bill, Democratic leaders tried to sound positive about passage, while working in the background to stem the tide of defections. President Barack Obama personally lobbied representatives today while his staff kept the pressure on Democrats. The message seemed to be that failure to pas the historic reform bill would hurt Democrats in the upcoming 2010 elections, where all of the House and a large proportion of the Senate will be at stake.

Democrat right-to-lifers were adamant that the health care reform package should not allow federal funds to be used for abortions, as is now prohibited under federal law. Unless their new “language” for the bill is accepted on the House floor they may still vote with Republicans against it. Reproductive rights activists are holding their breath hoping the moderate Democrats won’t use the opportunity to stiffen federal anti-abortion prohibitions.

The abortion issue is the trigger that could doom health care legislation, at least for this year. It’s difficult to believe Democrats didn’t get this hammered-out before now to remove the potential road block and so concentrate on Republican opposition. Right now the Democratic leadership is hoping their fellow party-members will get in line and vote for reform regardless of how the abortion tussle plays out.

Failure to pass health care reform this year will send Democrats into the mid-term elections with the stigma of failure, and the added onus of having sabotaged themselves if the abortion issue stops passage of the bill. Obama’s message that this is the historic moment when action counts isn’t just rhetoric, it’s the difference between holding the reins of power in Washington or being forced to try to prove himself yet again. Obama needs a win – any win – to establish his administration as the dominant political force in government. Otherwise we may see the spectacle of a Republican Senate dictating policy to the White House.

UPDATE: The House passed the health care reform legislation on a vote of 220 – 215. The new abortion language keeps the federal ban on abortion funding.

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