Legislation to fund community health centers was effectively killed late Wednesday night after abortion opponents added language that would have allowed hospitals and health plans to opt out of providing abortion services and referrals.
The move by House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) highlights the kind of trench warfare that has come to dominate the abortion debate on Capitol Hill. Faced with a divided Congress, GOP leaders have sought to place abortion restrictions on popular bills that stand the best chance of making it into law.
Wednesday's dispute centered on what kind of "conscience clause" private hospitals and health plans can invoke when it comes to abortion. Under current law, private physicians, hospitals and training programs can still receive federal funds without being compelled to perform abortions or train doctors on the procedure, but some states have challenged such exceptions.
In 1997, for example, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution, private hospitals could be required to provide abortions or refer patients to nearby facilities.
Abortion opponents, hoping to reverse such policies, saw an unrelated community health bill as their best opportunity to make the change. "This is must-pass legislation," said Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.), a vocal abortion opponent, noting that it was "a top priority with Catholic hospitals."
After being contacted by several Catholic groups, Armey made the change Wednesday, shortly before the House was slated to take up a series of noncontroversial bills that require a two-thirds vote for passage.
But the move sparked a rebellion by abortion rights supporters, including some Republicans, along with some members who oppose abortion, including Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). Reps. Jim C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) sent e-mails to members urging them to oppose the bill and informed the leadership the measure would fail unless the language was removed.
Greenwood called Armey's maneuver "ham-handed."
"You're not going to get away with sneaking something in, and you're going to create controversy when none existed," he said.
The nation's 3,500 community health centers, which do not perform abortions but refer patients to clinics upon request, provide primary health care in underserved areas, serving 11 million Americans last year, 5 million of whom were uninsured.
Shortly before midnight, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) pulled the bill. "What Armey and I did was to recognize reality," Tauzin said. "I wanted the bill very badly."
Tauzin said he hoped to bring the measure to a vote early next year.
But supporters of the legislation said they were dismayed their bill had become ensnared in an abortion fight. Dan Hawkins of the National Association of Community Health Centers said the legislative wrangling "endangered health care for millions of poor Americans and people of color."
Pitts, who emphasized that the centers are already funded under a separate spending bill that Congress passed yesterday, questioned such claims.
"This can wait until next year," he said.