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GOP Sees ‘Win-Win’ as Stupak Splits Dems


Anti-abortion protesters in front of the U.S. Capitol (Flickr: John Stephen Dwyer)

On Saturday, 64 Democrats backed Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) amendment to prevent abortions from being funded with taxpayer money in the comprehensive House health care bill. On Wednesday morning, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) attempted to soothe the jangled nerves of pro-abortion rights activists who were lighting up switchboards and issuing not-another-dime fund-raising threats against the party for letting it happen.

“It was not 40 votes that we were trying to get with this amendment,” Clyburn said in an interview with MSNBC. “It was 10 votes. And that’s the fact.”

[GOP]Republicans and anti-abortion rights activists weren’t buying it. Clyburn’s after-the-fact spin was incorrect; Democrats could have passed the bill without courting the anti-abortion rights members of their conference who wanted Stupak’s amendment. By letting it pass, a decision intended to give some temporary cover to vulnerable incumbents ended up opening a rift in their party.

In interviews with TWI, Republicans and activists explained their theory behind a contentious–and in the end, rewarding–heat-of-the-moment decision to back an amendment to a bill that all of them want to see go down in flames. The move to back Stupak’s amendment came after lobbying from a bevy of anti-abortion rights groups, including–perhaps most importantly–the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And while some conservatives are still critical of the party for not killing the amendment and trying to sink the bill with it, most are coming around to the view that the alliance with conservative Democrats had, in the words of one long-time conservative activist, “dropped a bomb” in the Democratic conference.

“If defeating Stupak wouldn’t [have changed] the outcome on Saturday,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), “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 Republican rush to support Stupak’s amendment was controversial from the very moment it occurred. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who was in the end the only Republican to vote “present” on the amendment, scorched fellow members of the minority for not joining him and sinking it. National Right to Life Committee warned Republicans it would score a “present” vote as a “no.”

“If Republicans had voted ‘present’ as a group, since we are the party of Life, we would have defined the ‘present’ vote as the pro-life vote. Doing so would have denied the purported pro-life Democrats cover. Given the extremely narrow margin of victory for the bill, it’s highly likely that without the Stupak language, it would have been defeated.”

Several other conservatives made this same argument to TWI, and criticized anti-abortion rights groups like the Family Research Council, National Right to Life, and Americans United for Life for backing the amendment and counting “aye” votes as “pro-life” votes. But in a lengthy Monday blog post for The Weekly Standard, John McCormack captured much of the thinking of Republican staffers and strategists–that Democrats were going to win the vote no matter what, and that to vote down the Stupak amendment would have been hypocritical and cynical. “Bringing down Stupak,” wrote McCormack, “would have seriously hurt the effort to defeat Obamacare.”

Anti-abortion rights groups backed up that assessment. “If the pro-life members of the House suddenly, cynically, pulled out the rug from under Stupak,” said Doug Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, “they would have been asking for defeat. I mean, that would have been a terrific gift to the left. Pro-abortion groups–I’m including pro-Obama front groups who claim to be pro-life groups–would have shouted from the rooftops: ‘You see, they don’t really care about the abortion issue, and when they had a chance they torpedoed it!’ It would have been a train-wreck.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List, agreed with Johnson. Her group marshaled 300,000 emails and phone calls to Congress to back the amendment. “For every single Republican save one to insist on a vote on this, then kill it with ‘present’ votes, would have been cynical beyond words,” Dannenfelser said. The situation for Republicans now, she argued, is a “win-win,” as it forces Democrats to stiff dozens of key members. Only one Republican, Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), voted for the bill, doing so after backing the Stupak amendment.

“Think about [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi looking at two letters on her desk,” said Dannenfelser. “I’ve got one letter saying if I don’t take it out, 41 Democrats will vote against it. I’ve got another letter saying keep it in or pro-life Democrats will vote against it. Either way you come up with coalition that can defeat it.”

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 it’s created for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). A semi-reliable vote against abortion rights until he became his party’s 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 amendment–provide 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.)

“They’re 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 can’t 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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t 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.”

None of the anti-abortion rights groups that supported an “aye” vote on the Stupak amendment will support the final bill. Dannenfelser and Johnson pointed to so-called “rationing,” that Conservatives fear would empower bureaucrats to deny care to some patients, and the exclusion of conscience provisions in the health care bill as surefire reasons why “pro-life” activists would be unable to support it. At the same time, they and Republicans suggested that if the health care bill survived with much of the Stupak language intact, it would be a victory unthinkable just a few months ago.

“If the Stupak amendment is in there, I would definitely define it as one of most important life votes in more than a decade,” said Johnson. “You’d have to go back to 1993. Clinton comes in. Everyone thinks the Hyde amendment [former Rep. Henry Hyde's (R-Ill.) legislation that banned federal funds paying for abortions] is gone, and they are absolutely shocked the day we renew Hyde on the floor of the House.”

This article has been updated for clarity.

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