The battle against Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kans.), President Obama’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, has gone better than many pro-life activists had hoped. Yes, it’s true that Sebelius is expected to be confirmed after an eight-hour debate and cloture vote are held in the Senate today. It’s also true that activists have not managed to dislodge the support of Sebelius’s home state senators, Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, both Republicans — an embarrassing setback that has prevented the Sebelius nomination from becoming quite the abortion rights showdown that they had hoped for. But they can count some small victories.
Image by: Matt Mahurin
“Going into this, there didn’t seem to be any opposition,” said Wendy Wright, the president of Conservative Women for America. “I was at her hearing, and that morning, I was reading news reports about how she was going to ‘sail through’ the Senate. Now I’m reading reports about the ‘controversy’ around Kathleen Sebelius. You can attribute that to what the grassroots have done here.”
After two months of pounding from pro-life groups, and two self-inflicted wounds by the nominee, opponents of Sebelius believe that they took a safe nomination and turned it into a controversial one. They have elevated Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor who is notorious in Kansas for performing late-term operations, into a figure of national infamy. Sebelius’s payment of $7,000 in back taxes was a minor setback, but misstating how much campaign cash she had received from Tiller turned Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who often defer to presidents on their nominees, from “aye” to “no” on today’s vote to end debate and proceed to a full vote on the nomination.
Before that vote, the anti-Sebelius coalition will hold a press conference on the Hill making the case against her. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) will make public a letter of opposition to the nomination that, as of press time, eight other conservatives had signed. Still, opponents of the governor have been frustrated by the early and consistent support for Sebelius from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), a social conservative who is retiring in 2010 to run for governor of Kansas.
“This nomination should be more unpopular than it is,” grumbled one GOP Senate aide. “Brownback’s hesitation and his months of holding off on substantive criticism of Sebelius has basically frozen the ability of pro-life senators to fight as hard as they would like to. It’s tough. It’s very difficult for the pro-life leader in the Senate to mobilize his allies when he’s moving in the other direction.”
Brownback’s support for Sebelius has evolved slightly since his original, full-throated endorsement of Sebelius. While his office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, he told Congressional Quarterly that supporting Sebelius was getting “harder and harder” after she vetoed a partial-birth abortion ban passed by the Republican-run state legislature.
That hasn’t been enough for pro-life activists. In March, the Family Research Council reacted to Brownback’s support for Sebelius by pulling out of the Senate’s weekly Values Action Team meetings. “We’ll be extremely disappointed if Sen. Brownback doesn’t change his mind,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for FRC. “That will play a role in any of our future work with him.”
Because Brownback is leaving the Senate, pro-life activists had been looking to build new alliances in the chamber even before the Sebelius nomination came up. “There needs to be somebody to take over for all the work that Brownback is doing,” said McCluskey. “How soon will they have to take over? Well, that could be decided as a result of this vote.”
The national politics of the Sebelius fight have been complicated, from the beginning, by the politics of Kansas, still home to some of the most pugnacious pro-life groups in America. While the nominee’s political support from George Tiller was known and debated throughout her 2006 bid for reelection — Sebelius won by 17 points — pro-life groups have been able to stoke national controversy with the help of Fox News (Tiller was the target of an ambush on “The O’Reilly Factor” in 2007), local activists, and the complications of Kansas medical law.
The news that Sebelius had under-reported her donations from Tiller was originally reported in a Kansas Catholic circular, The Leaven, in an article that was immediately passed up the food chain. Sebelius opponents have been able to say that Tiller is “under investigation” not because he has been convicted of a crime — he was acquitted of performing illegal operations only weeks ago — but because the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts has taken the prerogative of re-filing the legal challenges against Tiller. While the Board is not explicitly political, spokeswoman Sheryl Snyder explained how its challenges work to TWI before quickly adding, “I have my own opinions about Tiller.”
Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who worked for Sebelius in 2005, argued that the “vindictive prosecutions” against Tiller are a mainstay of Kansas politics, and that Brownback’s support of the governor’s nomination made sense in the context of his next political steps.
“He’s running for governor and there’s no one on his right,” said Loomis. “I mean, you could barely get to the right of Sam Brownback if you wanted to. So he’s throwing a bone to moderate Republicans by not standing in way of a moderate Democratic governor. He’d like to have her in the administration and not running for Senate next year and ginning up Democratic turnout.”
It’s all a bit much for Kansas activists to stomach. “Those guys in Washington don’t think like we do in Kansas,” said David Gittrich, the long-serving state development director of Kansans for Life. “It might be smart politically to get the governor out of Kansas, but it’s really hard for me to wish her on the nation. I’d rather have Hillary Clinton running health care than Kathleen Sebelius.”
According to Gittrich, when Brownback turns his sights on the governor’s race he’ll gave to “reestablish his credentials as a pro-lifer” and explain his vote. “All the pro-life votes in the world don’t make up for supporting Kathleen Sebelius,” said Gittrich. “This is like saying, ‘I’m against the Holocaust and Nazi Germany but I’d like Hitler to be in charge of the health care center.’”
In other words, pro-life activists are girding themselves for Sebelius to be confirmed. The campaign has “galvanized the base,” according to McCluskey, even if it ends in defeat today. Late in the day, Sebelius opponents brushed aside the criticism that the government’s response to the swine flu panic might have been complicated by this pitched battle over abortion rights. According to Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the president knew that the Sebelius nomination would be a flashpoint for criticism.
“If the president wanted to avoid ideological fights,” said Denton, “he shouldn’t be nominating divisive ideological nominees.”