The Senate’s 54-45 vote last evening to table the Hatch-Nelson abortion funding limitation sets the two chambers of Congress on a collision course with one another – with Democrats driving both vehicles involved in the collision. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) led the way in devising and debating his bipartisan amendment, which would have extended the long-time  Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) abortion funding policy and applied it to the insurance plans that will be subsidized under the bill.

Conscience protections become yet another banner of liberty trampled by the health care reform stampede, even as its sponsors seek to assure Americans that the overhaul is an expansion of freedom.

The nearly two dozen abortion funding prohibitions in current federal law reflect two basic principles: 1) that, except in situations involving the life of the mother, rape and incest, the federal government will not pay for or reimburse for abortions under federal programs like Medicaid; and 2) that, with the same exceptions listed above, the federal government will not subsidize insurance plans that offer coverage for abortion, which includes what the federal FEHB web site rightly calls “the widest selection of health plans in the country,” the FEHB system. This is the status quo that Hatch-Nelson would preserve and that the U.S. Senate yesterday voted to change.

Meanwhile, the health care bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on November 7 includes an amendment similar to Nelson-Hatch, called Stupak-Pitts. The fight for this amendment was led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), and 63 other Democrats joined Stupak in the final 240-194 tally in its favor. In the Senate, only seven Democrats voted for Hatch-Nelson. As various commentators have pointed out, neither side in the debate over the future of taxpayer funding for abortion is likely to compromise – the difference in 2009 is that, due to the Democrats’ deliberate strategy of supporting pro-life House members in swing districts in 2006 and 2008, the decisive clash of opinion is the one taking place within the majority caucus.

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) previously indicated that some effort will be made to satisfy Nelson if his amendment failed. But that may only occur if his vote is needed to make the 60-vote threshold for moving a final version of the bill. It’s hard to imagine that the Senate’s liberal wing, including those like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) who spoke against Nelson yesterday, won’t urge Reid to make compromises with Senators like Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) on other features of the bill rather than with Nelson on abortion funding. For now, the Senate bill differs sharply from the House version and the question is whether the new Democratic House members will hold to the commitments they have made.

At stake is the future of health care in America and with it, a permanent and growing breach in the wall of conscience protection that has kept U.S. taxpayers from subsidizing most abortions for more than 30 years.