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Killing the Stupak Amendment Wouldn't Have Killed the Bill

10:05 AM, Nov 9, 2009 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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On Saturday night the Democrats narrowly passed a monstrosity of a health-care bill. Some conservatives blamed the National Right to Life Committee. How is that possible?

In order to get enough votes to secure final passage, Nancy Pelosi allowed an up-or-down vote on the Stupak amendment to bar federal funding of abortion through the health-care bill. Rep. John Shadegg (R, Ariz.), who made a bid this year to be Republican minority leader, and Americans for Prosperity urged Republicans to defeat the pro-life measure by voting present. They argued that defeating the amendment could bring down the entire bill:

"(Nancy) Pelosi is speaker and she's pro abortion every minute of every hour of every day as speaker," Shadegg said in an interview with POLITICO Saturday evening. "This is a vote to help her move the bill forward."

In the end the Stupak amendment passed on a 240 to 194 vote. Although at least a handful of Republicans entertained the idea of voting present, Shadegg was the only one to do so. The GOP leadership released a statement that seemed to respond to those who wanted to bring down the amendment. "To be clear, the Stupak-Pitts Amendment's passage is the right thing to do," Representatives Boehner, Cantor, and Pence said in a statement. "We believe you just don't play politics with life."

There are many problems with the Shadegg/Americans for Prosperity gambit, but the most important one is that it simply wouldn't have worked. The bill would have passed anyway. In fact, in the long-run, defeating Stupak would have hurt chances of defeating Obamacare.

If Republicans followed Shadegg's strategy (at least 47 Republicans would have had to have voted present to defeat the Stupak amendment), a couple things could have happened. One, as the House GOP leadership argued, the pro-life Democrats, having voted their consciences and felt double-crossed by Republicans, would have voted for final passage anyway. "If that ended up being the case, [Republicans] did the right thing" by voting for the Stupak amendment, says Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity.

Two, if Pelosi didn't have the votes, she could have pulled the bill from the floor and brought it up for consideration this week--in all likelihood with weaker abortion language after the pro-life Democrats had been humiliated by Republicans. AFP's Kerpen argues nonetheless that there's a chance this could have thrown the Democrats into disarray. "If you wanted to kill the bill, the only thing that stood a chance of doing that was taking down the [Stupak] amendment," he says.

But chances of this strategy defeating the bill were slim. And Republicans had much to lose by voting down the amendment.

Substantively, the Stupak amendment was a "tremendous victory for pro-lifers, and the size of the vote actually should occasion some comment about the audacity of the Democratic leadership to try to block the overwhelming will of the House," says National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death. "I think we have really pushed far into the future any chance that they're going to make a run at the Hyde amendment."

Strategically, the Stupak amendment has divided the Democrats. Pelosi's decision to allow a vote on it elicited "tears from some veteran [Democratic] female lawmakers."

"Planned Parenthood Federation of America has no choice but to oppose HR 3962," the group declared in a statement, and the Washington Post reports that "Although House liberals voted for the bill with the amendment to keep the process moving forward, Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.) said she has collected more than 40 signatures from House Democrats vowing to oppose any final bill that includes the amendment -- enough to block passage."

It's going to be exceedingly difficult to strip the Stupak language from the conference report. Passage of the Stupak amendment in the House puts pressure on pro-life senators Ben Nelson and Bob Casey to settle for nothing less than the same language in the Senate bill, but pro-choice senators are vowing to strip the language.

If Nancy Pelosi does double-cross the pro-life Democrats and strip the pro-life language from the conference report, she would almost certainly lose at least 3 of the 42 members who voted both for Stupak amendment and final passage--enough to defeat the bill. So Democrats are left playing a game of chicken.

But if Republicans had voted down the Stupak amendment on Saturday night, they would have taken the issue off the table. "It would have looked extremely cynical," says Ponnuru. According to a House Republican aide, the "only message that would have come out of the Shadegg stunt is that Republicans only want to protect the unborn when they are in charge, but are willing to sacrifice them for political gamesmanship."

"If the Democrats had put up a phony amendment, that would be another story -- then we would have to call them out, but they did exactly what we asked. 183 Members, including Shadegg, asked for a vote on the Stupak amendment," the staffer added.

Senate Republicans could hardly have demanded that the bill bar federal funding of abortion after House Republicans had defeated the measure. Republicans would have been murdered in the press, and their pro-life reputations tarnished at least through the next couple election cycles.

Bringing down Stupak would have seriously hurt the effort to defeat Obamacare. The minority Republicans need public opinion and moderate Democrats on their side to defeat the health-care bill. Betraying pro-life Democrats and playing the part of cynical politicians for the media would have damaged that effort.