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Ben Nelson Threatens To Oppose Health Reform Without Restrictive Abortion Provisions

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Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Tuesday that he won't vote for health care reform unless the bill contains the same sort of restrictive abortion provisions as the House legislation, adding yet another hoop Democratic leaders will need to jump through as they scramble for 60 votes.

The Senate health care bill does not provide federal money for abortion, maintaining the status quo. But like Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and a sizable bloc of conservative House Democrats, Nelson says that's not good enough. Nelson said he plans to introduce an amendment to the Senate bill roughly resembling Stupak's.

Would he vote for a final bill if he can't get that language included? "No," he told reporters.

The conservative Nebraska Democrat has long been one of a handful of Senate holdouts on the issue of a government-run public health insurance option. This adds a new wrinkle.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House are using every tool at their disposal to corral 60 votes. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, until January a Democratic senator from Colorado, ordinarily wouldn't have anything to do with health care. But Reid said at an afternoon press conference that Salazar was brought in to talk to former colleagues on the strength of his people skills. The Interior Secretary also has acres of favors he can dole out to encourage cooperation.

One of Salazar's afternoon meetings was with Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who Democrats continue to look to as the likeliest GOP vote. Snowe has also talked to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is seeking a compromise on the public option. Carper told HuffPost he's asked to see some of the legislative language from Snowe's conditional "trigger" option, but she has yet to provide it.

Snowe and other swing senators said Tuesday that they were pleased by the new Congressional Budget Office report on the Senate bill, but that the new savings estimates haven't convinced them to support the bill as it stands -- largely because of the public option.

"The public option is an unnatural and dangerous appendage to health care reform," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) told reporters following an afternoon vote. The CBO report "doesn't change my position," Lieberman said, though he acknowledged that he found the new cost estimates "generally encouraging."

Snowe and Lieberman gave contradictory reasons for opposing the public option. Snowe argued that the bargaining power of the government could crowd out private insurers; Lieberman seized on a CBO analysis that the weak public option included in the Senate bill -- denatured to win moderate support -- would likely be costlier than comparable private plans.

Sen. Susan Collins, Snowe's fellow R-Maine, has long opposed any version of a public plan, including the "trigger" option advanced by Snowe. Collins told reporters that isn't the only sticking point for her, though. "I made very clear that I could not support the bill as it's currently drafted, and that there would have to be substantial changes, but I certainly hope that that will be possible," Collins said Tuesday afternoon.

Like Collins, Snowe said she has a list of issues to address, most of them regarding affordability. She wants more generous small-business tax credits, fewer taxes in general, and preemption of state policies, among other things.

For her part, Snowe said, "I guess I wouldn't draw any lines in the sand at this point." She said she hadn't met with Reid since Congress returned from its Thanksgiving recess, but would be talking with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as Salazar, throughout the week.

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