Three months after his career-defining health care vote, Michigan Democratic representative Bart Stupak still bristles at questions surrounding the deal he cut with President Obama on abortion. “The executive order says public funds cannot be used for abortion,” says Stupak, and those who say otherwise are “dishonest.”
Stupak may not be dishonest, but he’s certainly mistaken about the executive order that secured his vote, and the votes of other self-proclaimed pro-life Democrats, for Obamacare. Doesn’t the executive order simply affirm the Senate bill’s main abortion-funding provision that Ben Nelson signed off on—a provision that Stupak called “unacceptable” back in December? “I didn’t like the Nelson language on December 24, and up through that time,” Stupak replies. “Then there were changes in it, in the final bill. They cleaned it up quite a bit. There were changes made.” In fact, the abortion language passed by the Senate on December 24 is identical to the language signed into law by President Obama on March 23.
“I didn’t think we were going to get into the nitty gritty,” Stupak says after I ask him about the section of the executive order that says subsidized plans may cover elective abortions so long as federal subsidies are “segregated” from private dollars—the main funding mechanism of abortion in the bill and something Stupak had long rejected as a meaningless bookkeeping scheme. “I’m happy to call back if you want to get into the nitty gritty,” he says, “but in all honesty I don’t have [the executive order] sitting here in front of me.” Stupak said that on June 15. He never called back.
In Stupak’s defense, he may not have been prepared to discuss the executive order because the topic of the interview was the future of pro-life Democrats. But it’s hard to talk about the future of pro-life Democrats without discussing what happened in March. It was a defining moment that revealed there may not be a future for pro-life Democrats.
The health care vote confirmed that when a pro-life Democrat’s principles collide with his loyalty to the broader Democratic agenda, it’s the pro-life principles that give way. This pattern goes back all the way to Roe v. Wade. It happened long ago with the likes of Jesse Jackson and Richard Gephardt and Al Gore. Ultra-liberal Dennis Kucinich of Ohio—long a pro-lifer—tossed that position overboard the instant he launched his vanity presidential campaign in 2004. Harry Reid of Nevada sold out what remained of his pro-life principles in exchange for becoming the Senate Democratic leader in 2005. The Senate’s health care vote in December claimed the credibility of the two remaining pro-life Democrats in that chamber: Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who announced he’d rather pass a national health care bill that funds abortions than pass no bill at all, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who held out for a bit of extra federal cash for Nebraska known as the Cornhusker Kickback.
But Stupak was supposed to be different. He held out in spite of intense pressure from party leadership and activists for months. “I’ve had so many death threats, I don’t know if most of them were for or against health care, before or after [the vote],” he says. As Stupak told The Weekly Standard two weeks before the health care vote in March: “If I didn’t” cave in before, “why would I do it now after all the crap I’ve been through?”
Good question. We still don’t fully know the answer. But the reason doesn’t matter to pro-life groups. The lesson they took away from the health care vote is that there needs to be a day of reckoning for the Stupak Democrats, who cannot claim to be pro-life after voting for taxpayer-funding of abortion. So far, the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List has had some success targeting these members through its $1 million Votes Have Consequences campaign.
“Bart saved us a lot of money” by announcing his retirement, says the SBA List’s Marjorie Dannenfelser. Another member of Stupak’s group, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, was defeated by an anti-Obamacare Democrat in the primary, after being softened up by SBA List ads that hammered him for betraying the pro-life cause. Other top targets for the SBA List include Steve Driehaus of Ohio, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania.
Dannenfelser, who once worked for Mollohan when he was the co-chairman of the pro-life caucus, doesn’t delight in the campaign against the Stupak Democrats. The diminishment, if not extinction, of the pro-life Democratic caucus is bad for the pro-life movement, she says. “You want countervailing pressures” from both parties on the issue. Typically, pro-life laws that passed the House have had the support of anywhere from 190 to 210 Republicans, with pro-life Democrats providing the votes for a majority. Pro-life Democrats are never more important than when the Republicans are out of power, as they are now. The fact that the Stupak Democrats failed on an issue like taxpayer-funding of abortion—something so extreme that even most pro-choice Republicans oppose it, as well as about 70 percent of American voters—left pro-life groups with no other choice than to oppose them.
There are very few sincerely pro-life Democrats left in the House. One is Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski, who was the lone member of Stupak’s group who voted for Obamacare in November (when it included Stupak’s original anti-abortion language) but against it in March. He says he doesn’t question Stupak’s good faith but told Stupak before the vote that “the executive order probably would not stand [in court] and even if it did stand, it only covered part of the abortion funding—the direct funding of abortion [at Community Health Centers], not the fees for [subsidized] health plans.”
Lipinski insists he isn’t the last pro-life Democrat in Congress. “There are other pro-life Democrats, but they were never part of the Stupak group because they never considered voting for the health care bill.” True enough. Most of those 15 to 20 pro-life Democrats were from Republican-leaning districts in the South. They never really had their principles pitted against their self-interest like Lipinski did, as a representative of a heavily Democratic suburban Chicago district.
“I think that for the pro-life movement, it would be very detrimental if this became only an issue of the Republican party,” says Lipinski. But in the wake of the health care vote, that’s the direction the movement is heading—especially if Republicans have the sense to campaign on passing an amendment banning any federal funding of abortion, as New Jersey Republican Chris Smith has proposed. Stupak won’t even commit to calling for the passage of his original amendment. “I’d guess I have to see the context that it’s being put in,” he says. “I am not going to tell future Congresses what they should vote for.”
“Prudence at this point would advise caution in endorsing self-described pro-life Democrats,” says the SBA List’s Dannenfelser. “It would be hard to say that others were tested and proven, but we obviously appreciate their vote,” she says. “There are very few Lipinskis left in this world.”
By crossing the Democratic leadership, Lipinski has run the risk of losing his seat through redistricting or the 2012 primary. Still, he says he has no regrets: “There’s hardly a day that goes by that someone doesn’t stop me out on the street in the grocery store . . . especially seniors . . . thanking me for my vote on the health care bill. Those are not all Republicans that are doing that.”
John McCormack is online editor of The Weekly Standard.