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.”
That House Democrats find themselves in need of a pro-life vote may reflect a shift in public opinion on abortion. A Gallup Poll released in May found that 51 percent of adults identified themselves as pro-life, the first time Gallup had recorded a pro-life majority since it began asking the question in 1995.
Critics note that other surveys taken around the same time give the edge to the pro-choice side. When it comes to federal funding of abortion, however, there’s little ambiguity. Four major polls taken in the past four months show strong majorities opposed to spending tax dollars to pay for abortion procedures.
Such clear-cut results are rarely lost on lawmakers, especially those with less-than-safe seats. The Democratic Party made enormous congressional gains in 2006 and 2008, but a significant number of those victories came in right-leaning districts where the pro-life movement enjoys strong support.
Mr. Perkins said the party’s schism on abortion can be seen as the logical result of its recent electoral success.
“In ‘06 and ‘08, many of those who won ran as pro-life Democrats. So this is not unexpected,” Mr. Perkins said. “This was part of a strategy for picking up Republican seats, but it’s a double-edged sword. If [Democratic leaders] force these Democrats to cast liberal votes, they’re going to lose those seats.”
Every House Republican supported the Stupak amendment, which passed 240-194, but the Republicans also will need to account for the abortion issue in 2010. Many Republicans have attempted to downplay the party’s conservative stand on social issues in order to expand its base, but the health care debate could send it roaring back into the campaign spotlight.
“I don’t think health care can pass without the Stupak amendment,” Ms. Day said. “But if somehow it did, it would be a big issue. Then you’d have candidates in 2010 saying, ‘Congressman X voted to use your tax dollars to pay for abortions.’”
The issue is already playing out in the Massachusetts special election Tuesday to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy. Attorney General Martha Coakley, considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, said she would oppose health care legislation if it contained the Stupak amendment, saying the House bill came “at the expense of women’s reproductive rights.”
Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano, one of her primary rivals, immediately pounced, saying her threat to oppose the overall bill failed to honor Kennedy’s legacy. Shortly before his death, Kennedy called health care reform “the cause of my life.”
“When Martha Coakley said she would have voted against health care reform, that meant that she opposes bringing health care to 36 million more Americans, that she doesn’t want to prevent insurance companies from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions, and that, despite her TV commercial saying the opposite, Martha Coakley doesnt support the bill that created a strong public option,” said Mr. Capuano in a statement.
He noted that he and all other Massachusetts House Democrats voted in favor of the bill even with the Stupak amendment, confident that the provision would be stripped or modified in the final bill.
Meanwhile, the race’s two other candidates, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca and philanthropist Alan Khazei, have said they would vote reluctantly in favor of the health care bill, even if it did contain abortion restrictions.