The Stupak Bomb
by Charles Lemos, Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 06:03:37 PM EST
In a story about Representative Bart Stupak, D-Yooperville, making threats -"there will be hell to pay" - if his amendment prohibiting any coverage of abortion in the public option and prohibiting anyone receiving a federal subsidy from purchasing a health insurance plan that includes abortion is struck down, Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly quotes the office of GOP Minority Whip Eric Cantor as "if defeating Stupak wouldn't [have changed] the outcome on Saturday, then it is clearly evident that having it in and sparking a civil war amongst the Democrats is the best way to stop the overall bill."
The GOP is beyond gleeful that the culture wars have opened wounds within the Democratic party and given them an opening to derail passage of any comprehensive healthcare bill. That tells you all you need to know about the mindset that pervades today's GOP. Still Time's Amy Sullivan offers some comfort:
I'm also not sure that Stupak can count on 40 pro-life Democrats to oppose health reform in the final hour. The best estimates from House Whip James Clyburn--which match what I'm hearing from calling around--are that the Stupak amendment moved about ten Democrats who would otherwise have opposed health reform. Given the very small margin of victory, the Democratic leadership needed all ten. But it also looks likely--and I'll have more on this later--that a compromise short of the Stupak amendment would have assuaged almost everyone but Stupak.
It's worth noting as well that at least 40 pro-choice Democrats led by Congresswoman Diana DeGette have vowed to oppose a final version of health reform if it includes the Stupak language. I've talked to a lot of people this week who outright dismiss that possibility because "these are liberals--they want health reform. They won't vote against it." But that's the same thing we heard for months about the Stupak coalition. "They're just making noise. They'll vote for it in the end." And while, yes, some of those pro-life Democrats were also conservatives who opposed health reform--and voted against it anyway--on other grounds, many were Catholics who want health reform for social justice reasons.
Bottom line: this fight isn't going away. Polls may show that voters care far more about the economy and other matters than social issues right now. But in Congress, decades of old wounds over abortion fights have been reopened.
In allowing a vote on the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, Speaker Pelosi may have unwittingly altered the direction not just of this healthcare bill but of the Democratic Party and perhaps of the Obama presidency. It is safe to say that we are in a pickle of our own making. As Dave Weigel noted in the , "by letting it [the Stupak-Pitts Amendment] pass, a decision intended to give some temporary cover to vulnerable [Democratic] incumbents ended up opening a rift in their party.
The ripples of the Stupak vote are hitting the Senate before they can hit Pelosi. A major reason for Republican and conservative self-congratulation about the amendment is the puzzle its created for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada). A semi-reliable vote against abortion rights until he became his partys Senate leader in 2004, Reid is in the position of crafting language that can appeal to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)who has said he approves of the Stupak amendmentprovide cover to Democrats like Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), and avoid losing pro-abortion rights votes like that of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
"Theyre in a major bind," said Michael Franc, director of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "The only way to get out of it is for one of the two Democratic camps to go against something they believe deeply. There has to be intellectual flanking movement, somebody convincing them that the future of party at stake, they cant let this 100-year achievement flounder over this one thing."
For anti-abortion rights activists, the muddle is a victory nine months in the making. "If it hadnt been for National Right to Life working in the trenches since January," said Douglas Johnson, "this legislation would have passed sooner and by a larger margin. Remember, the president and the speaker and much of the mainstream media had been saying all year long that abortion wasnt in the bill. If they had been able to pull off this smuggling operation, it would have moved faster and passed sooner." It happened, said Johnson, because of "the tenacity of pro-life Democrats like Stupak."
In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Kate Michelman, the former president of Naral Pro-Choice America, and Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for Choice, lay it all out:
The Democratic majority has abandoned its platform and subordinated women's health to short-term political success. In doing so, these so-called friends of women's rights have arguably done more to undermine reproductive rights than some of abortion's staunchest foes. That Senate Democrats are poised to allow similar anti-abortion language in their bill simply underscores the degree of the damage that has been done.
Many women -- ourselves included -- warned the Democratic Party in 2004 that it was a mistake to build a Congressional majority by recruiting and electing candidates opposed to the party's commitment to legal abortion and to public financing for the procedure. Instead, the lust for power yielded to misguided, self-serving poll analysis by operatives with no experience in the fight for these principles. They mistakenly believed that giving leadership roles to a small minority of anti-abortion Democrats would solve the party's image problems with "values voters" and answer critics who claimed Democrats were hostile to religion.
Democrats were told to stop talking about abortion as a moral and legal right and to focus instead on comforting language about reducing the number of abortions. In this regard, President Obama was right on message when he declared in his health care speech to Congress in September that "under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions" -- as if this happened to be a good and moral thing. (The tone of his statement made the point even more sharply than his words.)
The party has distanced itself from the abortion-rights movement in other ways. It has taken to calling Democrats who oppose a woman's right to choose "pro-life" (and not "anti-choice"). The group Democrats for Life of America, whose Congressional members ultimately led the battle to exclude private insurance companies that cover abortions from health insurance exchanges, was invited to hold a press conference in Democratic Party offices. The party has promoted "pro-life progressives" like Sojourners, Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, organizations whose leaders have stated that abortions should be made "more difficult to get."
This, then, is where we stand as party leaders celebrate passage of the House bill. When it comes to abortion, they seem to think all positions are of equal value so long as the party maintains a majority. But the party will eventually reap what it has sown. If Democrats do not commit themselves to defeating the amendment, then they will face an uncompromising effort by Democratic women to defeat them, regardless of the cost to the party's precious majority.
In the meantime, the victims of their folly will be the millions of women who once could count on the Democratic Party to protect them from those who would sacrifice their rights for political gains.
Abandoning principles for short-term political gain is never a recipe for success. We're in a bind.