A Senate Showdown Over GOP's New Abortion Agenda?

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 6:55 AM EST

Late last month, Mother Jones reported that language in a controversial GOP-backed bill would have limited the definition of rape for the purposes of abortion law. After a New York Times editorial, multiple follow-up articles, a Twitter and blogging activism campaign, and a Daily Show mention, the bill's backers caved, and promised to pull the language from the bill. But the proposed law—the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," sponsored by New Jersey GOPer Chris Smith—is still chock full of other provisions that supporters of abortion rights loathe. And abortion rights advocates fear that those measures, unlike the apparently defunct rape language, stand a chance of actually passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.

So far, the part of the bill that has received the most attention is the section highlighted in the Mother Jones article last week. But for abortion rights advocates, the problem is that the rape provision isn't the only problem. At the law's heart is a permanent, government-wide extension of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the use of federal funds to pay for abortions via Medicaid. Currently, pro- and anti-abortion rights forces have to battle every year over which areas of the federal budget are subject to Hyde-like restrictions. This would end that fight, for good—and represent a significant win for opponents of abortion rights.

Another part of the law is a sweeping attack on tax benefits and deductions that affect abortion. It would, for example, forbid self-employed people from deducting abortion costs as medical expenses and would outlaw the use of funds from tax-exempt Health Savings Accounts to pay for abortions. In effect, this would raise the taxes of nearly anyone who had an abortion or purchased insurance that covered abortion. "Going after the tax subsidies that affect abortion" would represent a "substantial victory for the pro-life movement in America," Timothy Jost, an opponent of abortion rights and an expert on health law at Washington and Lee University, told Mother Jones last year.

Ultimately, opponents of abortion rights may face a choice. The current bill is a great "message" bill—ideologically rigid and ambitious. That makes sense—it was written when Republicans were out of power, when it had absolutely no chance of passing in a Nancy-Pelosi-led House. Anti-abortion rights groups like the Susan B. Anthony List have been furiously raising money off of it. Some of that money will almost certainly be spent to target Democrats—including some who oppose abortion rights—next cycle. 

If the anti-abortion forces' main goal is to raise funds and beat Democrats, they'll do just fine continuing what they're doing. But if they want to actually pass legislation, they could force Senate Democrats to make some tough choices—and take some tough votes—by stripping the tax provisions from the bill. If they press forward with a version of the bill that includes just the government-wide, permanent extension of the Hyde amendment, they might actually get something done. Would Senate Democrats really be able to muster the votes to filibuster a bill that codified Hyde?

Abortion rights supporters fear that the current version of the Smith bill could easily pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives—even if the the rape language was reinstated. Abortion rights opponents basically have one way to get the bill past that point: attaching it to "must-pass" legislation. This could include the planned repeal of one of health care reform's tax provisions (which has bipartisan support), a bill raising the federal debt ceiling, or a "continuing resolution" extending the funding of the government. Abortion rights supporters think that's just what their opponents will try to do.