It's back: Abortion debate reignites

March 23, 2010

After nearly derailing the health care bill that passed the House on Sunday, the abortion issue is poised to make a political comeback, returning the familiar wedge issue to the campaign trail after a brief hiatus.

Both abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups say the experience of health care reform has served as a reminder of the stark consequences of elections — and of the need to elect reliable allies who will work hard to advance and defend their agendas.

The Family Research Council, which has already spent nearly $2 million this cycle backing anti-abortion candidates across the country, is now considering wading into battles against anti-abortion Democrats like Pennsylvania Rep. Kathleen Dahlkemper, Virginia Rep. Thomas Perriello, Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth and West Virginia Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall — all of whom voted for the health care bill Sunday.

“Because of what pro-lifers see as betrayal, it’s personal now,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of governmental affairs for the Family Research Council. “There’s passion, but we want to make sure that passion is directed in the right place.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan told POLITICO that the lesson learned from the health care battle was that the abortion-rights movement, which has lacked the votes needed to shut down abortion funding language from anti-abortion Democrats throughout the health care reform push, needs more allies in Congress.

“From our point of view, we are concentrated on changing those numbers,” said Keenan. “We absolutely will be taking a look at those anti-abortion lawmakers, and if we can, we will take a run at them.”

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an abortion opponent who led the fight for restrictions on federal funding of abortion until cutting a deal with the White House that cleared the way for final passage on the bill Sunday, may find himself at the center of the storm.

In the hours after Stupak announced his compromise, the nine-term Michigan Democrat came under fierce attack from both sides of the abortion debate, including onetime ally Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group which stripped Stupak of its “Defender of Life” award.

“Stupak has not only failed to stand strong for unborn children but also for his constituents and pro-life voters across the country,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement.

Abortion-rights organizations, meanwhile, accused Democrats of advancing language restricting abortion rights in the health care legislation.

“On a day when Americans are expected to see passage of legislation that will make health care more affordable for more than 30 million citizens, it is deeply disappointing that Bart Stupak and other anti-choice politicians would demand the restatement of the Hyde Amendment, a discriminatory law that blocks low-income women from receiving full reproductive health care,” Keenan said in a statement.

Already, Stupak’s Upper Peninsula district is witnessing a surge in election activity linked to Stupak’s role in the health care debate. The National Organization for Women and MI List, a Michigan-based group that aims to elect women who support abortion rights, have weighed in for former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall, who recently announced her Democratic primary challenge to Stupak. Keenan hinted that NARAL would be announcing its plans for participating in the race in the days ahead.“I have gotten support from people all over the country,” Saltonstall told POLITICO on Monday, noting that she had raised $75,000 since entering the race earlier this month. “It’s been phenomenal the response we’ve gotten.”

On the Republican side, Dan Benishek, a Republican surgeon who is running against Stupak, saw a wave of interest in his candidacy after Sunday’s vote. Once considered a long-shot candidate, Benishek was scheduled for an appearance on conservative talk radio host Mark Levin’s show Monday.

The Family Research Council’s McClusky said there was little question that his organization would wade into the Stupak race.

“His actions hit the hardest,” said McClusky. “It’s time for him to leave Congress.”

In a brief interview prior to the vote Sunday, Stupak acknowledged that he and other anti-abortion Democrats had become a target from both sides of the debate.

“I’m sure pro-life organizations are not happy,” said Stupak. “Will they give us grief? Yeah. Yeah. We stood on principle.”

In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, both sides of the abortion fight sought to frame their positions in terms of popular support. SBA List held a conference call with reporters to unveil polling the organization conducted in a slew of districts held by anti-abortion House Democrats, while NARAL unveiled a five-page polling memo detailing voter support for abortion.

“Pro-choice Democratic women led the fight against the anti-choice forces led by Bart Stupak. One thing was made incredibly clear, and that is with more pro-choice Democratic women in Congress, the way this debate unfolded could have been remarkably different,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in an e-mail. “As we celebrate all the benefits included in the bill for American women and families, EMILY’s List is more determined than ever to elect women who will fight to protect women, their health and reproductive freedom.”

Veteran Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee said he was confident fellow anti-abortion Democrats would weather the storm from outside groups.

“They’ll probably get some grief, but I think they’ll be able to override it,” Kildee told POLITICO outside the House chamber Sunday evening. “You face it every year. They want total purity. But they’ll be able to handle that.”

Republicans have also signaled they’ll wage an aggressive fight over the divisive issue, with the National Republican Congressional Committee slamming Democrats in conservative seats for voting for a bill that they charged would weaken restrictions on abortion.

“Chris Carney, Not a Pro-Life Democrat Anymore,” read one NRCC press release Sunday, referring to the Pennsylvania congressman who signed on to the Stupak compromise.

And as they waged a last-ditch effort to derail the health care bill Sunday, Republicans sought to duplicate Stupak’s efforts last fall — when he was considered a strong anti-abortion ally — to strengthen the provisions restricting abortion funding in the bill.

Stupak stood before the House and bluntly accused Republicans of playing politics with abortion.

“For the Republicans now to claim that we send the bill back to committee under this guise of protecting life is disingenuous,” said Stupak. “This motion is really to politicize life, not prioritize life. We stand for the American people. We stand up for life.”
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