Unusual collision of abortion, immigration politics puts Nebraska lawmakers in uneasy spot

By Nate Jenkins, AP
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Abortion, immigration issues collide in Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. — Abortion and illegal immigration, two of the more explosive political issues in the country, are colliding in a way that could force Nebraska lawmakers to make an unusual, emotional choice.

The dilemma: Is it more important to care for pregnant women and their unborn children, or prevent illegal immigrants from getting taxpayer-funded benefits?

Until early this month, Nebraska had the only Medicaid policy in the country that allowed unborn children to qualify. That meant women who weren’t eligible for the government-run insurance program on their own — such as illegal immigrants — got Medicaid-covered prenatal care because their unborn children qualified.

After federal officials told Nebraska it was breaking Medicaid rules, the state tried to come up with a substitute. That effort appeared dead more than a week ago, when lawmakers sensed they couldn’t muster enough votes to override a veto from Gov. Dave Heineman.

But reports from doctors of several women saying they will have abortions instead because they couldn’t afford prenatal care have reignited the issue. While it’s still unclear whether lawmakers will get a new plan to debate, the abortion reports have raised the possibility they will.

So far, the response has revealed philosophical divides among both Democrats and Republicans.

“There are competing principles, and whichever way you vote, you are compromising a core principle,” said Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln. A Republican who is opposed to abortion, he’s leaning in favor of extending prenatal benefits to illegal immigrants but phasing out such funding over time.

“There’s so many political traps, it could be liberating,” said Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, a Republican who also describes himself as against abortion but who is leaning against providing state-funded care to illegal immigrants. “You’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”

Some lawmakers crinkle their brows and become solemn when speaking about the decision they may have to make. Others get angry when arguing that the issue is strictly about illegal immigration, not anti-abortion sentiment. One normally open lawmaker refused to talk publicly about the issue, worried it could hurt him in the upcoming election.

Heineman, meanwhile, has tried to stay out of the fray. Running for re-election, the Republican quietly announced his opposition to state-funded prenatal care for illegal immigrants last month in a letter to a legislative committee.

Asked about the issue late last week, Heineman — who normally has an even-keeled public demeanor — got testy.

“It seems to me each one of you ought to be asking the … senators” where they stand, he said.

State officials say that about 870 illegal immigrants and 750 legal residents including citizens lost Medicaid coverage this month when Nebraska dumped its two-decade-old Medicaid policy. More than 4,700 legal residents once considered at risk of losing coverage got to keep it because state officials found they qualified under different provisions of Medicaid.

Carrie Carstens, a single mom, was one of them. After initially believing she would no longer qualify for Medicaid, she went to her doctor and told him she wouldn’t see him anymore.

“I simply couldn’t afford it,” she said.

The reports of more women seeking abortions — which some lawmakers are openly skeptical of — spurred the renewed push to create a separate, non-Medicaid program under which illegal immigrants and some legal residents would get state- and federal-funded prenatal care. It would be created under the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, which allows unborn children to qualify for federal- and state-funded care.

About a dozen other states have similar programs that are a hybrid of state and federal funding.

Nebraska lawmakers were awaiting word from Heineman late Tuesday on whether he would support a plan from Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha that hinges on about $3 million from private donors being used to provide prenatal care to women in the short term. The governor’s position on that plan is seen as a key factor in whether a prenatal plan is formally considered by lawmakers.

The conservative divide on the overall question is clear.

“This is not a pro-life issue,” said state Republican Party chairman Mark Fahleson. “It is about conferring taxpayer funded benefits to illegal immigrants.”

The position of the state’s politically influential anti-abortion group, Nebraska Right to Life, normally aligns with the state Republican Party.

Not this time.

Nebraska Right to Life is hoping for a vote in favor of prenatal care, and the group’s director said she hasn’t heard one complaint from any of the group’s hundreds of volunteers that it should change its position.

“I don’t know where this supposed groundswell of opposition from anti-illegal-immigration folks is coming from,” said Julie Schmit-Albin.

But state Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah, a Democrat, says he’s heard “severe opposition” from constituents to extending prenatal care to illegal immigration. Appearing weary as he discussed his decision-making process, he said he would probably vote against extending state-funded care because of that.

“I support the issue of taking care of moms, but don’t support taking care of illegal immigrants, so what do you do?” he said. “Whatever button I push,” he added, “I won’t be happy with the decision.”

On the Net:

Nebraska Legislature: www.nebraskalegislature.gov

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