With little fanfare, President Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order that was the basis of a deal struck with anti-abortion House Democrats, whose votes were crucial to passing the landmark healthcare overhaul.
Obama, coming off a day on which he made full use of White House pageantry to sign the healthcare bill, took a conspicuously low-key approach.
No news photographers or reporters were allowed into the signing ceremony in the Oval Office. Nor did the White House circulate a statement confirming that it took place. Instead, the White House released its own photo showing Obama at his desk, pen in hand.
The order restates a policy barring the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s staff wrote in response to a questionnaire that he opposed the abortion-funding ban, known as the Hyde Amendment.
Invited to the signing were a cluster of anti-abortion Democrats, including Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan. Stupak had led a bloc of House Democrats who threatened to withhold their votes for the healthcare package absent a guarantee that federal money would not be used to pay for abortions.
On Sunday, the day of the House vote, the executive order proved to be the compromise that won over Stupak and the others.
Neither Republican opponents of the healthcare package nor liberal elements of Obama’s base seem happy with the executive order. And it’s not clear that it was legally necessary.
If the Hyde Amendment is already in effect, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked at the daily news briefing, why the need for an executive order reaffirming the same policy? Gibbs said: “We reiterated the status quo, and we’re comfortable reiterating that status quo.”
Abortion-rights advocates said they were disappointed with Obama’s order.
“What we need to hear our leaders say is that the Hyde Amendment is bad law,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “It needs to ultimately be repealed. It hurts women.”
On the other side of the divide, the anti-abortion camp said the order is deficient in part because it does not carry the force of law. Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement: “We do not understand how an executive order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions.”
The executive order took effect on a day when Capitol Hill is still coping with the fallout from the bill’s passage.
As debate raged in the Senate over a “fix” package for the overhaul, Republicans continued to register their displeasure with the proceedings by holding up committee hearings for a second consecutive day.
A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that had required commanders to fly in from South Korea and Hawaii to testify was scrubbed -- as was another panel’s hearing for UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu, nominated for a seat on the federal appeals court in San Francisco.
GOP senators are unhappy because Democrats are pushing through the package of healthcare modifications using a process known as reconciliation, which requires a bare majority of 51 senators and vitiates use of the filibuster.
Late Wednesday, the Senate ended the required 20-hour debate period for the fixes and began voting on a wave of amendments offered by Republicans that are designed to force Democrats to make a series of embarrassing “no” votes.
One amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), for example, would prohibit the government from covering erectile dysfunction drugs for convicted sex offenders. Another would force Democrats to take a stand against establishing a government-run insurance provider, which is favored by many liberals.
The series of votes, dubbed the “Vote-a-rama,” was expected to last deep into the night.
Republicans were also planning to launch a series of procedural attacks on the healthcare bill.
If any of the amendments were approved or any of the parliamentary objections found valid, the House would have to vote again on the package after the Senate passed it. A Senate vote is expected by week’s end.