In a move that could bolster efforts to pass the health care bill, the Catholic Health Association, representing more than 600 Catholic hospitals, endorsed the measure today, rejecting the claims from anti-choice groups that it would publicly fund abortions.

The chief executive of the Catholic Health Association, Carol Keehan, wrote on the group’s Web site that although the legislation isn’t perfect, it represents a “major first step” toward covering all Americans and would make “great improvements” for millions of people. The more than 600 Catholic hospitals across the country do not provide abortions as a matter of conscience [...]

Keehan said in an interview that she believes the approach now in the bill would work just as well to keep federal dollars from being used to pay for abortion.

“On the moral issue of abortion, there is no disagreement,” Keehan said. “On the technical issue of whether this bill prevents federal funding of abortions, we differ with Right to Life.”

There’s a good reason for Catholic hospitals to support the Senate language – they happen to be correct about it restricting abortion funding, and actually exptends beyond the Hyde Amendment in ways that could have a chilling effect on private coverage of abortion services. Bart Stupak’s language would clearly accelerate that process, but the Nelson compromise does offer an array of restrictions, including a state opt-out for abortion coverage on the exchange.

So the Catholic hospitals are apparently taking their win. So are these anti-choice pastors and evangelical leaders. And together they provide cover for members in the Stupak bloc to split off and support the bill. Stupak seems to have a core of a half-dozen holdouts. That may shrink even further with these developments.