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The Senate took up the right to abortion in the health reform debate today, with a proposal by Sen. Ben Nelson of Colorado to mirror the punitive restrictions in the House version. Except for Nelson, who was a rabidly anti-choice governor, not one other senator had the guts to speak in favor of a measure they fully intend to vote for. Total cowards. 

Nelson, a conservative Democrat, is holding out his deciding vote on health care in exchange for rolling back women's rights by decades. His measure bans those in subsidized "exchange" health plans from
abortion coverage, even paid for with the policyholders' money. And virtually none are allowed at all in any publicly sponsored plan. It upends what is called the Hyde amendment, which 30 years ago banned the spending of any public funds on abortion, and has been fought by womens' rights groups ever since.

Nelson's allies shyly declined to say why they are standing with him. That part of the debate resumes tomorrow. We'll see if any of them develop a spine overnight.

On the floor of the Senate, there was otherwise plenty of hot, scary rhetoric from opponents, still on message to delay a final vote and sow unfounded fear about Medicare, "government-controlled health care" deficits and "new entitlements" (i.e. health care for millions more Americans). One good amendment passed unanimously, requiring surveys of customer satisfaction with plans in the regulated health insurance exchange, and publication of the survey results. An amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg of N.H., designed to kill the whole reform package under the guise of protecting Medicare, was rejected.

I suspect there will be more overnight bargaining between Nelson and Democratic leaders about his abortion amendment, seeking a fig leaf's worth of weakening of his harsh restrictions. But it seems certain that the rights of half the population will be degraded by anything that Nelson would approve.

Then we'll see what a handful of Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, are able to extract toward killing the already very weak option of a publicly sponsored health plan to compete with private insurance companies.

In the end, Congress will likely be the elephant giving birth to a mouse, a much-shrunk reform that shovels millions of customers to private insurers, acceptsa bad deal on drug discounts to appease pharmaceutical companies, and lets insurance companies keep delaying and denying care to their customers.

Will it be an improvement on the status quo? Probably. Will it be a good bill? No. But sometimes a bad bill can be improved as years go by.