Michigan duo in spotlight


About the only thing that Reps. Bart Stupak and John Dingell have in common is that both are Democrats from Michigan who serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee once chaired by Dingell.

Stupak, 58, is a social conservative from the sprawling rural Upper Peninsula who was elected in 1992, when the 83-year-old Dingell, a leading urban liberal from Detroit’s industrial suburbs who was elected in 1955, was already well on his way to becoming the longest-serving House member, a distinction he achieved in February 2009.

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But their separate careers converged dramatically on Sunday when Stupak helped make history by assuring House passage of the landmark healthcare reform legislation that has been Dingell’s lifelong goal ever since his father co-sponsored the first national health insurance bill in 1943.

“I’ve been there before,” Dingell said when asked if he was seeing history being made, referring to the fact that he has introduced his father’s national health insurance bill as H.R. 15, the number of his southeastern Michigan district, in every Congress since succeeding his father, and that he helped President Lyndon Johnson pass Medicare more than 40 years ago.

Dingell, who has an artificial hip, slowly made his way to the Capitol on crutches with his wife, Debbie, and several aides just minutes after Stupak announced that he and other anti-abortion-rights Democrats had agreed to vote for the landmark legislation. That followed President Barack Obama’s promise to issue an executive order “to assure that federal funds are not used for abortion services.”

Ignoring hundreds of nearby protesters who waved signs and shouted, “Kill the bill,” Dingell asked, “What did he [Stupak] say?” He was then told that Stupak’s announcement would assure Democrats the final handful of votes needed to gain the 216 necessary for passage.

Smiling, he said, “We’re going to get 220 votes,” before his wife, an executive of the General Motors Foundation, cautioned him not to make a prediction. A few hours later, Dingell saw his prediction fall only one vote short as the bill passed by a 219-212 vote, with 34 Democrats joining every Republican in opposition. 

Stupak, meanwhile, was relishing his moment in the spotlight as he held forth before reporters and TV cameras with six colleagues in a jammed House Radio and TV Gallery. 

“I’ve always supported healthcare reform,” he told reporters, many of whom had to watch on monitors in an anteroom, before adding, “There was a principle that meant more to us than anything, and that was the sanctity of life.”

The tall, gray-haired Stupak, whose district bordering Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron is the second largest east of the Mississippi, and his colleagues spent nearly 45 minutes justifying their decision before he spent another 20 minutes doing live TV interviews.

Asked if he felt he was making history, Stupak said, “I guess you could say that.”

For Stupak, even more than for Dingell, Sunday’s climactic vote was a cathartic moment that highlighted his personal commitment to healthcare issues.

Ten years ago, on Mother’s Day 2000, his 17-year-old son killed himself the morning after his prom. The tragedy prompted Stupak and his wife to mount a crusade that led to tighter restrictions on the use of Accutane, a prescription drug for acne treatment his son was using that was later found to have adverse psychological effects, including suicide attempts.

But even though the roles they played that led to Sunday’s epochal vote were as different as their personal and political personas, the two Michigan congressmen are certain to be linked when the history of healthcare reform is finally written.