Stupak: Health fight has been 'living hell’

Leading a revolt against President Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation over abortion has been a “living hell” for Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

The telephone lines in his Washington and district offices have been “jammed” and he’s gotten more than 1,500 faxes and countless e-mails — most of which he says don’t come from his constituents.

ADVERTISEMENT
The fight has taken a toll on his wife, who has disconnected the phone in their home to avoid harassment.

“All the phones are unplugged at our house — tired of the obscene calls and threats. She won’t watch TV,” Stupak said during an hourlong interview with The Hill in his Rayburn office. “People saying they’re going to spit on you and all this. That’s just not fun.”

Stupak has become a nationally known figure because of his demands for tough language in healthcare legislation to prevent any federal subsidies from being used for abortion services.

He voted for the House healthcare bill in November after leaders met his demands, but has vowed to lead a group of 12 Democrats in voting against the Senate healthcare bill.

Stupak deems language in the Senate bill too weak on restricting federal funds from being used for abortion services.

Stupak said he didn’t anticipate how big the abortion issue would become during the healthcare reform debate, nor did he figure to find himself a household name.

“I’m a little surprised,” Stupak said.

The worst part has been the pressure from groups and individuals from outside his district on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“How’s it been? Like a living hell,” Stupak said.

The 57-year-old Democrat said he has a history of working behind the scenes with Democratic leaders on abortion.

“In the past, we’ve always been able to work it out,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve not been able to work it out.”

Other anti-abortion-rights Democrats have said they’ll support the Senate bill.

Rep. Dale Kildee, another Democrat from Michigan known for opposing abortion, released a statement on Wednesday supporting the Senate bill, which he said would prevent federal funds from going to abortion services.

But the intensity of the resistance to Stupak’s position has, if anything, stiffened his resolve. He shows no signs of voting for the Senate healthcare bill, which could hit the House floor this week.

“I’m pretty stubborn,” said Stupak, who keeps in his shirt pocket a list of lawmakers who are willing to vote no. The so-called Stupak Dozen met Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill to strategize and exchange stories of the pressure they are under.

Being seen as the one Democrat standing between the party and the achievement of one of its most coveted accomplishments weighs heavily on the lawmaker, who said it’s not fair to paint him as the chief obstacle to passing healthcare reform.

“I can’t block it. Bart Stupak and his ‘dirty dozen,’ however you want to call it, we can’t block it. There’s 39 other people who didn’t vote for it,” said Stupak.

Stupak claims while Democratic leaders have peeled off a few of his group, he always had more than 12 and he stresses he still has 12 now.

The ideal outcome, Stupak said, might be for the House Democratic leadership to get the votes they need without him and for the bill to pass.

“You know, maybe for me that’s the best: I stay true to my principles and beliefs,” he said, and “vote no on this bill and then it passes anyways. Maybe for me is the best thing to do.”

Beyond the abortion issue itself, Stupak said he feels conflicted because he has always supported healthcare reform.

Stupak sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which authored much of the House’s healthcare bill, and chairs its powerful Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. Stupak chaired memorable hearings last year at which he and his fellow panelists took health insurance executives to task over the practice of rescissions, or canceling policies when a patient’s bills get too high.

“It’s caused a lot of internal conflict. ‘Am I doing the right thing,’ you know?” he said. “I believe everyone should have healthcare. In all my correspondence — I’ve been saying for years — it’s a right, not a privilege.”

Stupak has never signed up for federal health benefits because he promised voters in 1992 that he wouldn’t until universal healthcare was enacted.

He also said was denied coverage for a pre-existing injury when he got his insurance from the Michigan Legislature: “I can identify with those people who have been before my committee.”

But in the end, the abortion issue has trumped other concerns. “It’s a belief for me, so it’s easier to do. And it’s a belief for my district, so I guess it’s easier to do,” he said.