The recent fight over taxpayer funding of abortion in the national health-care bill revealed not only that pro-life Democrats exist in the U.S. Congress but also that they come in three distinct types: stalwarts, sellouts, and snakes.
The stalwarts, led by Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, stuck to their principles in the face of intense pressure from their party’s leadership and banned federal funding of abortion on demand in the House legislation.
The sellouts were Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Although they provided the crucial fifty-ninth and sixtieth votes to end the filibuster in the Senate—and thus had the power to force the party to choose between banning abortion funding and killing the bill—both Nelson and Casey abandoned their principles when things became difficult.
The snakes, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, distinguished themselves from the sellouts because—or so it seemed to emerge during the intense battle over the bill—they didn’t have pro-life principles to abandon in the first place. Their purpose, as it appeared as the debate unfolded, was to convince voters and other members of Congress of the false proposition that the legislation would not use federal dollars for abortion.
At the outset of the debate, Bart Stupak’s biggest challenge was to debunk the claim that the legislation had already banned abortion funding. As a self-described pro-lifer, Tim Ryan wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on July 21 that called for a “common-ground” solution to the problem of abortion in the health-care bill. A week later it was clear that he was working with pro-abortion forces. Ryan told me during a phone interview that an alternative amendment sponsored by Democrat Lois Capps of California (who has a lifetime pro-life rating of zero) made it “very clear that no public money can be used to provide and pay for an abortion.” But Stupak pointed out that this amendment was a “phony compromise.” It allowed both the federally subsidized plans and the public plan to cover elective abortions—all while purporting to ban public funding for abortions through a bookkeeping measure.
Under the proposed Capps amendment, an individual would contribute, say, $500 to purchase an insurance policy, and the federal government would provide that individual with, say, $3000 in subsidies. An abortionist would, on paper, be paid out of the $500 contributed by the individual. As many commentators pointed out at the time, this is a distinction without a difference. The Capps amendment was a significant departure from current law, which prohibits insurance plans for federal employees from covering abortions.
Nevertheless, the amendment gave Speaker Pelosi and President Obama their talking point, and they were sticking to it. The president told a group of Christian leaders on a conference call in August that those who claimed the health-care bill covered abortion were “frankly bearing false witness.” Obama said again, during his address to a joint session of Congress in September, that “no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions,” and Pelosi repeated the claim later that week while denying Stupak an up-or-down vote on his amendment that would explicitly ban funding.
At the time, Stupak told me, Obama wouldn’t even take his calls. Pelosi, too, ignored Stupak until she could do so no longer. Fortunately, the night before the House voted, Pelosi agreed to give Stupak a vote on his amendment, because she could not have passed the bill without the votes of committed pro-life Democrats. On November 7, Stupak’s amendment passed, 240 to 194, and the underlying bill passed 220 to 215.
And on the battle moved to the Senate. On December 8, Majority Leader Harry Reid rose to the Senate floor to affirm his “belief in the sanctity of life.” Indeed, he said, “One of our nation’s most cherished charters—drafted by one of our most beloved leaders—declared life to be the first among several of our absolute rights. Jefferson put it before even liberty, before the pursuit of happiness. Life!”
But all this was a prelude to Reid’s explanation for why he would be voting against the Senate’s version of the Stupak amendment, sponsored by Bob Casey, Ben Nelson, and Orrin Hatch. The Stupak amendment, Reid claimed, “would make dramatic changes to current law in America.”
Casey’s Senate floor remarks were remarkable—but not because he delivered any impassioned defense of the right to life. The Pennsylvania Democrat declared that he would vote for the health-care bill whether or not his amendment passed. “No matter what happens on this vote, this debate will continue even in the context of this bill,” Casey said, “and I believe we have to pass health-care legislation this year.” The amendment was voted down 54 to 45. “Laying down your hand like that before the game starts” doesn’t give you much leverage, explained Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.
Casey’s weakness was the clearest indication yet that he is not his father’s son. Bob Casey Sr., the late Pennsylvania governor, was infamously repaid for his steadfast and outspoken opposition to abortion by being denied the opportunity to speak at the Democratic convention in 1992. Casey Jr. has “made no bones about the fact that, and I’ve heard him say this on repeated occasions, he’s not his dad on that issue,” says Rick Santorum, the Republican senator whom Casey defeated in 2006. “Bob Casey Sr. understood” that the first inalienable right is the right to life, says Santorum, “and I think his son [believes] government providing services is more important than protecting innocent human life.”
The younger Casey, whose office refused my request for an interview, may have been influenced by pro-abortion staffers and a desire to move up in party leadership. But whatever his motivation, Casey’s actions essentially left Ben Nelson by himself to hold the line among Senate Democrats. Poor man. The hapless Nebraskan appeared to be the Bart Stupak of the Senate until, on December 18, he caved in, settling for a supposed “compromise amendment” that would have allowed individual states to opt out of providing federally funded abortions within their borders. While Nelson was in one room negotiating this noncompromise, other provisions were slipped into the bill that would allow direct federal funding of abortions on Indian reservations and provide $7 billion to community health centers with no restrictions on abortion funding. On December 21, Casey, Nelson, and the other fifty-eight Democratic senators voted to end debate on the bill. All sixty Democrats voted to pass the bill on Christmas Eve.
The stunning victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts has given the Republicans the forty-first vote to maintain a filibuster of any House–Senate compromise health-care bill. The only way to pass the health-care bill now is for the House to agree to the Senate bill, unamended.
But Stupak and at least ten other stalwart pro-life Democrats who voted for passage of the House bill are unwilling to vote for the Senate bill’s abortion-funding provisions. It’s an odd irony of the health-care debate that, in the end, Casey’s decision to sell out his pro-life principles may be what finally keeps the health-care bill from becoming law.
John McCormack is the online editor of the Weekly Standard.