WASHINGTON – Language has been added to an emerging bipartisan deal on Medicare clarifying that the agreement's abortion restrictions on community health centers are temporary and won't be inscribed into permanent law, House Democrats said Monday.
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The Democrats said they believe the new provisions will ease concerns that have threatened Democratic support for the overall package, which is mostly aimed at protecting doctors who treat Medicare patients from imminent, deep cuts.
Democrats, especially in the Senate, had complained that the tentative deal between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would give three-decade-old legal curbs on abortions the force of permanent law.
Congress has always enacted those restrictions — called the Hyde amendment — annually, which gives Democrats hope that someday they might have the votes to repeal them. Lawmakers and Democratic aides said the language added to the Medicare agreement Monday would clarify that the abortion restrictions on community health centers would end in two years, when the package's extra money for those centers also expires.
"It won't be a codifying of Hyde," said Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill.
"We reached an agreement acceptable to both sides on language that maintains the status quo," said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
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The language was added after an unusual public divide between Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., over whether the provisions in the Medicare package would expand abortion constraints. Pelosi argued that the restrictions in the Medicare agreement simply reiterated existing curbs on abortions at community health centers, which serve millions of low-income people in every state.
Lobbying against the earlier abortion language were several abortion-rights groups, including Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Both organizations are usually stalwart allies of Pelosi, who is considered one of her party's standard-bearers on abortion rights.
In a sign that the problem might not be resolved, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said her group "remains deeply concerned" about the package. She called it "part of an organized, orchestrated attempt to block abortion access for the most vulnerable women in America."
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Democrats were trying "to make lemonade out of lemons" and said the proposed language "robs Americans of their fundamental rights based solely on income."
Physicians face a 21 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements starting April 1 unless lawmakers block it.
The Medicare deal would extend the Children's Health Insurance Program for two more years. It would also provide $7.2 billion over two years to give community health centers the same, higher amounts they've received since President Barack Obama's health care law was enacted in 2010.
Leaders expect the House to vote on the overall agreement by Thursday, before Congress departs for a two-week spring break.
It carries a roughly $210 billion, 10-year price tag. Its fate remains especially uncertain in the Senate.
Some Democrats remain opposed because of higher expenses the package would impose on Medicare beneficiaries, mostly those earning high incomes.
Some Republicans are expected to vote no because two-thirds of the package's costs would be financed by adding to federal deficits. The rest is divided about evenly between added costs for Medicare beneficiaries and providers such as nursing homes.