Democrats seek nuance on abortion

Senate and House Democrats, with the support of Minority Leaders Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are pressing party Chairman Howard Dean to establish an official relationship with Democrats for Life, an anti-abortion-rights group that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has previously shunned.

Senate and House Democrats, with the support of Minority Leaders Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are pressing party Chairman Howard Dean to establish an official relationship with Democrats for Life, an anti-abortion-rights group that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has previously shunned.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is leading the Senate effort, while in the House Reps. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) are playing prominent roles.

Their hope is to respond to last year’s election setbacks, make the party more inclusive and make it less identified with abortion.

The effort comes at a sensitive time as Democrats wrestle with how best to approach the upcoming confirmation hearings on the nomination of Judge John Roberts to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Abortion dominates the Supreme Court debate among conservative and liberal activists and is expected to be central in Roberts’s hearing. But Democrats are now downplaying abortion as confirmation hearings near.  Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last week warned reporters not to “translate this entire process into a referendum on Roe v. Wade.”

Instead, Senate Democrats are attempting to broaden the debate to one about the right of privacy and focus on Roberts’s writings on the interstate-commerce clause of the Constitution, the legal underpinning for much congressional regulation.

In the wake of defeats in the 2002 and 2004 elections, Democratic leaders acknowledge that the issue of abortion has been a political liability for their party.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who is considered the front-runner for the 2008 presidential race, took the lead in adding nuance to the party’s position on abortion when, in a speech earlier this year, she said it was important to reduce the number of abortions.

Her remarks were widely interpreted as a move toward the center of the political spectrum.

Reid and Pelosi have discussed a relationship between Democrats for Life group and the DNC. Dean has also participated in the discussions, according to Democrats for Life.

Representatives of Democrats for Life, including Nelson’s staff, and 16 House Democrats met with Dean on Thursday morning to urge him to establish an official relationship that would be signified by, among other things, posting the group’s Internet address on the DNC website. So far, the DNC has refused to allow even that modest show of affiliation with Democrats for Life.

DNC spokesman Josh Earnest said, “We don’t have links to any other third-party groups.”

But when asked about Dean’s talks with Reid and Pelosi, Earnest said, “I’m sure he’s had conversations with them about that because he supports a big-tent party.”

Democrats for Life representatives are scheduled to meet Pelosi this week, and Reid has voiced his support for establishing the more official relationship.

“Senator Reid has been contacted and has been very receptive of what we’re trying to do,” said former Rep. Chris John (D-La.), who sits on the group’s board of directors, adding, “He is pro-life, as you well know. He is very supportive of trying to make that link and make that recognition.”

Reid’s aides have put the emphasis on their boss’s efforts to reduce the number of abortions. They said that Reid met with Nelson and Democrats for Life earlier this year and discussed his work on legislation that would lead to fewer women seeking abortions. Reid’s aides said they were not familiar with the dispute between Democrats for Life and the DNC about an official link.

The efforts to build a relationship seem to be having an impact on Dean. A day after meeting with Democrats for Life, the Associated Press reported, he told a group of college Democrats: “We do have a big tent. I do think we need to welcome pro-life Democrats into this party.”

Dean also recognized that Republicans have successfully used the abortion issue as a weapon.

“I think we need to talk about this issue differently,” Dean said. “The Republicans have painted us as a pro-abortion party.”

Dean’s public comments reflect remarks he made to the DNC’s national finance board last week. He told his top moneymen and -women that he would “like the word ‘abortion’ struck from the political discourse.”

Steve Grossman, a fundraiser and adviser to Dean who attended the meeting, said, “[Republicans] use it to misrepresent us. We haven’t found a way to characterize ourselves properly.”

People attending the meeting between Dean and Democrats for Life said that he was very receptive and that he would look into building a stronger relationship with the group. He also said that he would explore establishing the Internet link.

But whether that happens may depend on the final version of a legislative proposal pro-life House Democrats are crafting that would try to reduce the number of abortions in the country by 95 percent over the next 10 years.

Rep. Ryan is expected to introduce the proposal after the August recess.

The Democrats for Life website would heavily promote the bill, and DNC officials have told lawmakers opposed to abortion that they would like to review it before linking up the two groups’ websites.