COLUMBIA -- State budget writers who deal with big numbers find themselves wrestling with a major policy issue -- abortions under the state health plan.

Leaders of the state budget debate were flummoxed as they headed Wednesday into the final stage of negotiations.

"Whoever thought that an issue like state health plan funding of abortion would hold up the budget?" said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican.

Abortions and taxpayers funding them have become huge issues this year even though South Carolina mirrors federal law. It only allows the state health insurance plan for state workers and teachers to pay for abortions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the mother's health. The plan covered six such abortions last year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper saw his budget debate on the floor hijacked for hours by the issue in March.

Cooper and Leatherman have been working behind the scenes for two weeks with no apparent compromise in sight.

Legislators had hoped to resolve differences in a $5 billion spending plan filled with budget cuts and leave early, saving taxpayers about $73,000 a week. That would also allow House members with primary challengers more time to campaign.

The only other major sticking point involves Senate plans to impose more than $50 million in fines and fee increases intended to spare courts and police agencies from cuts. Cooper won approval for a proposal Wednesday that takes money from social welfare programs, including money for AIDS prevention and treatment, cancer screening, prescription drugs and smoking cessation.

It should surprise no one that Republicans are rallying around a conservative touchstone, particularly as House seats are up for election this year, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster.

In a year where incumbents are threatened, "they know they can go to their conservative base and say 'I'm keeping your taxpayer dollars from being used for abortion,' " Huffmon said.

Taxpayer-funded abortions were a central debate as the U.S. House and Senate passed national health care legislation this year. Supporters made it clear the legislation wouldn't expand taxpayer-funded abortions and President Barack Obama ultimately signed an executive order making federal law clear.

When the South Carolina House took up the state budget in March, Republicans made coverage for abortion under the state health plan a rallying point. They initially lost a bid with a 57-54 vote. But the next day, in what became a rare all-night session, Republicans rallied with a 75-38 vote after a six-hour debate and won a ban on state health care plan coverage for rape or incest.

Democrats argued the change penalizes crime victims and noted the number of abortions last year, which only inflamed Republicans.

"We killed six babies last year on the taxpayers' dime," Landrum Republican Rep. Joey Millwood said over and over.

"It is such an inflammatory issue, it just sort of blows up," said Huffmon, the Winthrop political scientist.