The Democrats' New Bob Casey Problem

WILLIAM MCGURN

Someone ought to tell the president and the speaker of the House that they are creating a new Bob Casey problem for their party. And his name is Bart Stupak.

Bart Stupak

The Bob Casey in question is the late governor of Pennsylvania, so famously humiliated at the 1992 Democratic convention. Party officials who denied the podium to the pro-life Democrat somehow found speaking slots for several pro-choice Republicans. That moment helped tar the Democrats as a party of abortion intolerance -- a problem the party thought it put behind it in 2006 when the governor's son, Democrat Robert Casey Jr., was elected senator as a pro-life Democrat.

Now party elders are making the Casey mistake all over again. A nine-term congressman from northern Michigan, Mr. Stupak is the kind of Catholic who once constituted the heart of the Democratic Party. Just like Gov. Casey before him, Mr. Stupak's stand for life -- in this case, his fight against tax dollars for abortion -- is making him a thorn in the side of a Democratic president.

It didn't have to be this way. In his Notre Dame speech, President Barack Obama called for "open hearts" that would help us find "common ground" to "reduce the number of women seeking abortions." During his more recent address to a joint session of Congress, the president was even more specific about health-care reform, promising that "no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions."

That is just what Mr. Stupak is trying to do with an amendment to the health-care legislation would explicitly ban federal funding for abortion. Here's the problem: His own party won't let him bring it to the floor for a vote. It's a replay of earlier this year, when the leadership blocked a similar Stupak effort on a financial appropriations bill that ended up removing restrictions on D.C. taxpayer funding for abortion.

"The most frustrating thing is we go to the Rules Committee, they smile and say 'thank you,' and then we're left at the door," says Mr. Stupak. "At least give us a chance to let people debate and vote."

The effort to suppress Mr. Stupak's amendment is particularly ironic given the pledges Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes in her manifesto "A New Direction for America." In this document, she asserts that "no Member of Congress should be silenced on the floor." She also calls for a "full amendment process."

Last week Mr. Stupak, 24 other Democrats and 158 Republicans sent the speaker a letter asking her to make good on that pledge. Members of the House, they said, should have the "right to vote their conscience on an amendment offered by Congressmen Stupak and [Joe] Pitts [R., Pa.] regarding government funding for abortion."

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, puts it this way: "You can't just say common ground," says Ms. Day. "You have to do it."

Mr. Stupak thinks his amendment would win, but he concedes no one knows if he has enough support to block a health-care bill in the event he's denied a chance to bring his amendment to the floor. Still, he's making folks nervous. Mr. Obama has called, and more recently Mrs. Pelosi invited him in for a meeting.

"The Democratic leadership sees this as a legislative problem," says Ms. Day. "But their treatment of Bart has the potential to become a new Bob Casey moment that will hurt us for years to come."

Of course, it's hardly news that Democrats find dealing with a pro-lifer in their midst tricky. What is astounding is the virtual silence from the chorus that thumped so loudly for Mr. Obama's words at Notre Dame. Presumably, Mr. Stupak is their man -- a courageous and committed Democrat who wants health-care reform to pass. Yet the liberal religious folks who claim to be pro-life as well as pro-Obama have largely left Mr. Stupak standing alone.

Except Michael Sean Winters. In a July 14 blog for the Catholic weekly America, Mr. Winters drew a line in the sand over tax funding for abortion.

"Many of us pro-life Democrats have given the President the benefit of the doubt on the abortion issue because of his repeated commitment to trying to lower the abortion rate, a commitment he reiterated to Pope Benedict XVI last week," he wrote. "[But] all the good will he has earned among Catholic swing voters, and all the arguments on his behalf progressive Catholics have mounted, all could be swept away if abortion is part of a federal option in health care."

Mr. Winters is right. No one -- including outside groups such as FactCheck.org -- believes the Democrats are being upfront about the abortion funding in their legislation. And long after this health-care debate has ended, many will judge the Democrats' claims about finding "common ground" by how the party handles Mr. Stupak and his amendment.

"The Democratic leadership sees this as a legislative problem," says Ms. Day. "But their treatment of Bart has the potential to become a new Bob Casey moment that will hurt us for years to come."

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

William McGurn. "The Democrats' New Bob Casey Problem." The Wall Street Journal (October 6, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

William McGurn was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush until February 8, 2008. Formerly an executive with Newscorp, McGurn also served as the chief editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal. From 1992 to 1998 McGurn served as the senior editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Prior to this he was the Washington bureau chief of National Review. McGurn is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Boston University. He is the author, with Rebecca Blank, of Is the Market Moral?.

Copyright © 2009 Wall Street Journal




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