Update 5:40 p.m. ET: Late Wednesday afternoon the House voted 251-175 to pass a bill that would ban tax subsidies for many private insurance plans that include coverage for abortion services.
The GOP-led House of Representatives is set to approve one of its top bills today. And the title lets you know right up front what's on the line.
It's labeled HR 3, but is better known as the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." Backers say the measure will simply write into permanent law a decades-old ban on federal funding for abortion. Opponents, however, say it goes much further, by also banning tax subsidies for health insurance plans that include abortion as a covered service, which many do.
This was the bill, some may remember, that originally sought to narrow the exception for funding for rape to only "forcible" rape. That was removed after a torrent of criticism, including a widely circulated send up on The Daily Show in February.
"Are drunk women who are raped covered?" asked Daily Show Host Jon Stewart. Senior Women's Issues Correspondent Kristen Schaal replied with her own questions: "Well, were they dressed slutty? Was it a bachelorette party? A local bar or a chain?"
But the bill could still produce some unexpected consequences if it were to become law.
For example, during the House hearing on the measure at the Ways and Means Committee, the staff director of the Joint Committee on Taxation testified that the bill was so vaguely written it could end up applying to many more employers than sponsors originally said they intended to reach.
That means that many small businesses would either have to change their insurance plans (to ensure that they don't include abortion coverage) or else lose tax benefits.
Not surprisingly, that's irritated members of the small business community.
"Small businesses that finally determine that their health insurance policy does in fact cover even one abortion service will be financially punished in one of two ways," Frank Knapp, President and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a blog post for The Hill. "Either they can keep their present policy and lose thousands of dollars in hard won tax credits or they will give up their current health plan and most likely have to pay higher premiums for a new plan."
Still, abortion opponents now in control of the House intend to press ahead, with the strong backing of anti-abortion groups. "Americans United for Life Action will score this key vote," said the group's CEO Charmaine Yoest. "Americans will be watching closely to see whether Congress understands that social conservatives and economic watchdogs have found common ground. Getting the American taxpayer out of the business of subsidizing abortion is a budget cutting priority."
In the end, even the expected House passage of the legislation is unlikely to result in a new federal law. The bill would first need to clear the Democrat-controlled Senate and overcome a threatened veto by President Obama.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
On Capitol Hill today, the Republican-led House passed one of its top priority bills: an effort to ban all federal abortion funding. Backers of the measure say it simply writes into permanent law a ban that has been renewed every year since the 1970s.
But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the bill would do a lot more than that.
JULIE ROVNER: House Speaker John Boehner made the bill sound simple.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Speaker): A ban on taxpayer funding of abortion is the will of the American people and ought to be the law of the land.
ROVNER: Indeed, the central idea of the bill is to write into permanent law the so-called Hyde amendment, named for the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois. It's been added to every federal spending bill since 1976 as a way to prohibit federal funding of abortion, except in very limited circumstances.
But this bill does something else too. It extends the ban on federal funding for abortion into the tax code.
Here's how the bill's sponsor, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, explained it.
Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): HR3 ends the current IRS policy allowing tax-favored treatment for abortions under itemized deductions.
ROVNER: Which means women could no longer write an abortion off as a medical expense, nor use pretax money put in special health savings accounts to pay for the procedure.
Rep. SMITH: HR3 also ends the use of tax credits to purchase insurance plans that include abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or life of the mother.
ROVNER: Arizona Republican Trent Franks said such changes are needed to ensure that taxpayers are completely protected from having to subsidize the procedure in any way.
Representative TRENT FRANKS (Republican, Arizona): Forcing taxpayers to pay for the indiscriminate killing of helpless little baby Americans is not good government, and it should be ended once and for all.
ROVNER: But Democrats said it's this bill that's not good government. While the title of the bill says its aim is to end federal funding of abortion, the real goal is much broader, said New York's Jerry Nadler.
Representative JERRY NADLER (Democrat, New York): The real purpose and effect of this bill is to eliminate private health care choices for women by imposing significant tax penalties on families and small businesses when they use their own money to pay for health insurance or medical care. This tax penalty is intended to drive insurance companies into dropping abortion services from existing private health care policies that women and families now have and rely upon.
ROVNER: Democrats said that could put some women in serious jeopardy, particularly if they end up needing an abortion for health reasons and it's no longer covered by their insurance.
Louise Slaughter of New York called it, quote, "immoral."
Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): Under HR3, a woman facing cancer who needs to terminate a pregnancy in order to live might have to go into debt over the $10,000 that legal and necessary procedure could cost.
ROVNER: Democrats also warned Republicans that they were setting a dangerous precedent by using the tax code to discourage behavior some people disapprove of.
Here's how Minority Whip Steny Hoyer put it.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; Minority Whip): That's what this legislation says. It's your money, but if you don't spend it the way we want you to spend it, we will not give you the tax credit that every other American can get.
ROVNER: California Democrat Jackie Speier said she could envision how easily something like that could spread.
Representative JACKIE SPEIER (Democrat, California): What's next? Some find it immoral to drink alcohol or gamble. Should we outlaw business deductions for meals that include wine? How about business conventions in Las Vegas?
ROVNER: Republicans, however, like Scott Garrett of New Jersey, say Democrats are overstating the case when they say that taking away a tax subsidy is the same as raising taxes.
Representative SCOTT GARRETT (Republican, New Jersey): Nothing, of course, is done in this legislation to that effect.
ROVNER: Abortion opponents are likely to try to force a vote in the Senate if only to put Democrats up for election in 2012 on the record, although it's not expected to pass there. And President Obama has vowed to veto it. Still, this is just the sort of bill Republicans could try to add to some other must-pass legislation between now and Election Day.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.