Abortion struggle came down to the wire

Rep. Bart Stupak says he was willing to settle for less.

Stupak (D-Mich.), a staunchly anti-abortion Democrat, won from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi an up-or-down vote on his amendment imposing tight restrictions on abortion in the Democrats' healthcare bill. The amendment passed Saturday night 240-194.


The victory came only after bitter intra-party struggle that threatened to block the Democrats' historic drive for universal healthcare.

But he got it only after negotiations with Pelosi (D-Calif.), an ardent supporter of abortion rights, fell apart late Friday night.

"I think the other side overreached," Stupak said Saturday afternoon. "It's more than what we thought we would get."

But abortion-rights supporters dismiss the idea that they made a tactical mistake. They say the deal they were offered late Friday would have required them to vote for restrictions they oppose or risk blocking the healthcare bill, the Democrats' top domestic priority. Aides said it was important that abortion-rights supporters got the chance to vote against it and try to defeat it.

"We were at an impasse," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a lead negotiator for Democrats. "The way you resolve an impasse in Congress is to put it to a vote."

The abortion issue has simmered since July, when Stupak lost a vote on his amendment in committee.

Federal law has blocked taxpayer dollars from funding abortions for decades. Both sides in the debate say they simply want to maintain that existing law, known as the "Hyde Amendment." But the Democrats' proposed expansion of the federal role in healthcare would make it trickier to block such funding while maintaining access to abortion services.

Stupak's amendment imposes tight restrictions on abortions that could be offered through a new public health insurance option and through private insurance purchased with government subsidies for lower- and middle-income people.

Critics call it a "de facto" abortion ban, because private companies would stop offering the coverage in order to get access to the subsidized customers though "exchanges" created by the bill.

The issue came to the fore after a divisive fight over the public option, and in the final days threatened passage of the $1 trillion bill.

Stupak had been threatening since July to use a procedural move to block consideration of the health bill if stronger constraints weren't imposed on taxpayer funding for abortion. He said he had 40 Democratic lawmakers with him, enough, combined with all Republican House members, to succeed in blocking the bill.

Early this week Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) came out with a compromise proposal that built on the existing restrictions in the bill, which were authored by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

Among other provisions, Ellsworth's legislation would have required any payment for abortion by the public plan to be handled by private contractors to ensure no tax dollars are funding abortions.

Abortion-rights supporters said they could accept it, but anti-abortion groups attacked it as a "money-laundering" scheme. Still Ellsworth said he had three lawmakers who would support his language. That would have appeared to eliminate Stupak's ability to block the bill. But it would have been close, and leaders couldn't have lost votes on other issue.

A significant problem was that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would not agree to the language, lawmakers said.

"Other members felt like they needed the … blessing of the Catholic Bishops," Ellsworth said.

That prompted complaints from abortion-rights supporters that the religious group was being given too much deference.

"When did the Bishops become members of Congress?" said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). "Who elected them?"

Negotiations got intense on Friday, as Stupak returned the House after being out for a death in the family, and the Rules Committee met to determine the parameters of the debate.

Stupak said that by 8 p.m., he'd struck a new deal with Pelosi on a new compromise, called Stupak-Ellsworth by some. Stupak said the plan would have permanently banned tax dollars from supporting abortion in the public plan, and for private insurers, it would have to be voted on every year.

Stupak said his group of 40 votes was willing to go along with it. But an hour later, Pelosi called and said abortion-rights supporters were balking at the deal.

"She said, 'I can't hold our side on it. I have no choice but to give you a vote on your amenedment,'" Stupak recalled.

Early Saturday morning, the Rules Committee, which Pelosi controls approved an up-or-down vote on Stupak's amendment. Besides a Republican substitute, it is the only amendment the speaker and the committee allowed.

Aides say it wasn't a matter of divisions on the abortion-rights side. The problem, they say, was that abortion-rights lawmakers didn't support the Stupak-Ellsworth compromise and didn't want to be forced to vote for it in order to get to the healthcare bill. The compromise would have been put into the "rule," which Democrats neeeded to pass to get the bill to the floor.

Instead, they decided to hold Stupak to his promise that he wanted only an up-or-down vote on his amendment.


But Stupak said the up-or-down vote didn't automatically win his vote, or the contingent of lawmakers he'd put together. It only meant he wouldn't oppose the bill based on abortion concerns if he lost.

He said 15 of the 40 would oppose the bill on final passage no matter what. But he said if he got the vote, and it failed, about 20 of the 40 would then vote yes on the bill.

As for himself, Stupak said he was undecided.

"I would like to vote for this bill," but he had concerns with a tax provision recently added to the bill that he worries will harm paper mills in his district.

The late-night dealmaking kicks the problem down the road to the Senate and any conference committee that tries to hammer out a final version. Unless another compromise is found, the issue could still derail the bill even when Democrats on the cusp of victory.

Stupak says to get his vote on the final bill, "there will have to be some kind of Hyde language in there."

Abortion-rights supporters say they can support the bill with Stupak's language in it now. But they expect the abortion language will change.

"I feel certain it will come out of the bill before it comes back from committee," Woolsey said. "I will insist that it come out."