WASHINGTON-A majority of senators late Thursday night showed no objections to approving President Barack Obama's $3.5 trillion budget blueprint. But many of those same senators objected to an amendment that would have protected the rights of medical professionals.
The Senate voted 56 to 41, largely along party lines, against Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn's budget bill amendment preserving the right of conscience for health care workers. (See "Your conscience or your job?" WORLD, Mar. 28, 2009.)
This amendment would have prohibited any of the budget's $634 billion health care reserve fund from being used to deny the freedom of conscience for health care providers to serve patients without violating their moral and religious convictions.
"Like many pro-life doctors, I would go to jail before being forced to perform procedures, such as abortion, that violate my deepest held convictions," said Coburn, a practicing physicians who has delivered more than 4,000 babies. "Discriminating against health care providers by requiring them to disregard their deeply held beliefs is assault on liberty."
Coburn offered the amendment because the Obama administration is seeking to rescind a federal regulation established by the Bush administration that offers further protections to doctors and other caregivers who decline to participate in procedures such as abortions.
A 30-day public comment period on the Department of Heath and Human Services proposed rescission expires April 9.
Three Democrats-Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Pryor from Arkansas-joined the majority of Republicans who voted for Coburn's amendment. Three Republicans-Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania-sided with the Democratic majority in opposition to the amendment.
Casey and Nelson sent a letter to President Obama this week asking him to keep the conscious clause protections: "Discriminating against health care providers because of their consciences or forcing coercion into their practices would be a substantial deviation from our shared goal of reducing abortions in America."
Senators took every whack they could at the budget during a marathon of votes Thursday before it passed-decreasing the estate tax, which President Obama's budget had held at last year's rate of 45 percent, and prohibiting things like a national energy tax.
But all the provisions could be tossed in the wastebasket when the House and Senate meet in two weeks after their Easter recess to meld their two versions of the budget into its final form.
But what made it in, at least for now?
The estate tax, or death tax, under the Senate budget would be reduced to 35 percent, a 10 percent reduction from the president's budget. President Bush had intended to phase out the estate tax entirely, but that seemed unlikely with the government facing booming debt.
Several amendments passed protecting taxpayers and industries in different ways from a national energy tax, indicating to many in Congress that certain climate-change legislation simply won't make it through the Senate. Obama's proposed cap-and-trade system, which taxes businesses with certain levels of carbon emissions, would raise energy costs for consumers, which some lawmakers have referred to as an energy tax.