Those who remember the 1980s must be experiencing deja vu: Meryl Streep is the toast of Hollywood, Michael Jackson’s latest release debuted at the top of the charts, and abortion is the hot-button political topic in Washington.
The abortion issue never really went away, but it’s back with a vengeance, driving the political debate on health care, jeopardizing the president’s coalition on his centerpiece legislation and threatening to turn the tide of the 2010 elections.
That’s not just the opinion of dedicated pro-life and pro-choice activists with an interest in puffing up the importance of their signature issue. Anyone in Washington who had forgotten about the issue’s power to sway policy and shape debate can consider themselves reminded.
“I do believe that abortion turned out to be an unexpected and not entirely welcome addition to the health care debate,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior political editor at the Cook Political Report, in an e-mail. “It changed the tone somewhat and has exposed fissures in both parties that have been dormant for several years.”
Abortion was barely a footnote in the 2008 presidential race, given the focus on the economy and the Iraq war. When President Obama launched his push for health care reform shortly after taking office, questions of cost, quality and accessibility dominated the debate.
The Stupak amendment changed that.
Michigan Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak’s push to restrict federal funding for abortions in the health care bill revealed a couple of little-known facts: first, that pro-life Democrats weren’t extinct after all, and second, that they were willing to sink the legislation rather than compromise.
Pro-choice lawmakers argued strongly against the measure, saying the health bill as drafted was explicitly designed to be “neutral” on federal abortion policy and would not alter the existing restrictions on funding.
Still, facing the defeat of the entire health care bill last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed a floor vote on Mr. Stupak’s amendment, where it passed with 64 Democratic votes, or about 25 percent of the House. Forty-one of those Democrats later supported the final health care bill with the amendment.
Virtually the same amendment is now poised for a vote in the Senate, offered by Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson. Mr. Nelson, whose amendment is expected to fall short, has vowed not to vote for the final bill if it is not included, leading top Senate Democrats scrambling to hold their caucus together.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat and pro-choice, said in an interview Monday with MSNBC that Mr. Nelson’s amendment “goes too far.”
“It crosses a line,” she said, by making it difficult for patients to use even their own money for abortion coverage. “The Nelson amendment takes us back, it takes away options on health care coverage.”
An analysis of the House vote demonstrates the continuing potency of abortion as a political issue.
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said about 40 of the 64 who backed the amendment would be considered authentic pro-life Democrats. The rest cast their votes for other reasons, ranging from a desire to reflect the will of their districts to a philosophical opposition to taxpayer funding of abortions.
“We were a little surprised it got so much support,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Some may have found it an easy way to rack up a pro-life vote.”