WASHINGTON — With the hours ticking down to a final vote on a landmark health care overhaul in March of 2010, Joe Donnelly huddled with a small group of fellow anti-abortion Democrats in a nondescript, musty room on the top floor of the least-desirable House office building.
They sucked down paper cups of hot coffee while meeting in secret with White House attorneys into the early morning hours.
President Obama was on the verge of achieving an expansion of health insurance that had eluded the last Democratic president.
But one of the very reasons that Obama was so close was also the reason he might fail.
Democrats had recaptured the House in 2006 by running moderate candidates like Donnelly whose views on issues such as abortion were a good fit for his South Bend-based district.
Now, Donnelly and enough other Democrats to sink the bill said they couldn’t vote for it unless they could prevent the new health care funding from being used to pay for abortion services — one of the several times throughout Donnelly’s political career that abortion would be a potentially career-ending or career-boosting issue, especially now as he seeks re-election to the U.S. Senate.
As the lawmakers stepped out into the 1:30 a.m. darkness after the meeting, pleased that they weren’t greeted by the glare of television cameras, former Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak remembers Donnelly joking, “Hell, are we the only fools still up at this time of night?”
They had agreed on a solution, which was announced the next day, hours before the final vote.
But as has happened with Donnelly time and again on the issue of abortion, he ended up pleasing neither side.
Now, as one of the few anti-abortion Democrats left in Congress, Donnelly is again being targeted for defeat by anti-abortion groups while not getting help from abortion rights advocates — despite the fact that both sides say he’s been with them on more than half of their most important votes.
“Abortion is one of those issues where you’re either `one of us’ or you’re `one of them,’” said Deana A. Rohlinger, a sociology professor at Florida State University who has written a book about abortion politics. “So being a pro-life Democrat can be problematic for not only trying to get Republican votes, but also for getting Democratic votes.”
Of the 64 House Democrats who voted in 2009 to keep the Affordable Care Act from subsidizing abortions, only 13 are left in Congress.
Unlike most anti-abortion Democrats who have since retired or been defeated, however, Donnelly survived his 2010 re-election and went on to be elected to the Senate in 2012 after his Republican opponent’s campaign imploded after he said a pregnancy resulting from rape was intended by God.
But abortion may now be the most difficult issue for Donnelly — one of the most vulnerable senators on the ballot this year — who is trying to prove that there’s still any kind of a middle in politics in an increasingly polarized electorate.
Donnelly lost his campaign treasurer in 2015 after she objected to his vote to block federal funding to Planned Parenthood, a position he has since reversed.
More significantly, abortion became a key issue in this year’s elections after Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s swing vote on abortion issues, announced his retirement.
Donnelly — one of three Senate Democrats who voted in January to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — needs Republican votes to win re-election. But he risks alienating motivated Democrats if he backs a nominee who might overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that said women have a constitutional right to an abortion.
‘And babies don’t need wafflers’
In a year when women are breaking records for campaign donations, Donnelly has received a smaller share of his contributions from women than nearly all Senate Democrats facing re-election this year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“I am, and have been, disappointed in his continued failure to advocate for Hoosier women and families regarding issues of reproductive justice,” said Emily O’Brien, vice president of the Indiana National Organization for Women, which is pressuring Donnelly to reject Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Anti-abortion groups are also critical of Donnelly while praising GOP challenger, Mike Braun, who says he s “100 percent pro-life” — including opposing abortion in the cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the woman. Donnelly makes exceptions in all three cases.
“He waffles,” Sue Swayze Liebel, the Indiana state chair of the Susan B. Anthony List, said of Donnelly. “And babies don’t need wafflers. They need champions.”
Abortion rights advocates say Donnelly should learn that he’s never going to make the other side happy so he should side with the majority of the public which thinks abortion should be allowed in at least some circumstances.
“I think the folks in the anti-choice camp are really never satisfied,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president of Catholics for Choice. “They will not be satisfied until they have eliminated access to abortion all the time.”
Abortion views rooted in Catholic faith
Both Donnelly and Braun say their anti-abortion views are rooted in their Catholic faiths.
“I’m 100 percent pro-life because that’s my heritage,” Braun said. “That’s the way I was raised.”
Donnelly, likewise, said his faith and upbringing have “always been a big part of it.”
A “Double Domer” with both undergraduate and law degrees from Notre Dame, Donnelly consulted with former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh during the Affordable Care Act debate.
But Donnelly emphasizes that he follows the “seamless garment” view, first articulated by Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin in 1983, of a “consistent ethic of life” on issues including not just abortion, but also euthanasia and social justice issues.
“What that says is, all life is critical from conception to natural death,” Donnelly said. “To me, pro-life is actually a broader discussion.”
Driven in part by Catholic Democrats, more than 40 percent of House Democrats called themselves pro-life in 1980.
But when Stupak first ran for Congress in 1992, he was pressured by the campaign arm of House Democrats to drop out of the primary because of his anti-abortion views.
The national Democratic Party openly struggled with the issue in 2005 when former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer – who had previously represented Donnelly’s district – sought to lead the Democratic National Committee. After the party lost the 2004 presidential election, Roemer had been urged to run because of his anti-abortion views to show Democrats had a broad tent. But his bid never gained traction.
“It was a very difficult mountain to climb from the beginning, and some people tried to hang a radioactive anvil around my neck on abortion,” Roemer said when he dropped out of the race.
The next year, however, Donnelly was among the anti-abortion Democrats supported by the national party in a successful effort to retake the House.
“I loved it,” Stupak said of the additions to the Congressional Pro-life Caucus he co-chaired. “They weren’t afraid to stand up for their beliefs.”
Days after being sworn into office in 2007, Donnelly cast his first vote that pleased anti-abortion advocates. He opposed a Democratic proposal to allow federally funded stem cell research.
Donnelly later voted to deny foreign aid to organizations abroad that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning.
He voted for amendments authored by then-Rep. Mike Pence to ban Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funding for Title X family planning and related preventive health services
Health care and abortion rights
When the House passed its initial version of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, Donnelly voted for an amendment authored by Stupak to bar the new federally-subsidized private insurance plans the bill would create from covering elective abortion services.
But when the Senate didn’t include that provision in its version, anti-abortion lawmakers in the House were in a bind. Democrats had lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate at the beginning of 2010, meaning the House had to accept the Senate’s version or the overhaul would likely fail.
Donnelly and Stupak were among the final holdouts who got call after call from Obama administration officials trying to get them on board.
On the other side, passing health care legislation had been a top priority for Catholic leaders, but without the anti-abortion amendment included in the final package, they now opposed final passage.
Religious groups held prayer sessions in the hallways outside of lawmakers’ offices. Tea Party activists demanded the bill be killed.
“It was unreal. You couldn’t go anywhere,” Stupak, the leader of the Democratic holdouts, remembers. “At the end, I had security all the time.”
After negotiating with White House attorneys, seven anti-abortion Democrats agreed they could vote for the Senate bill — which ended up passing 219 to 212 — if Obama signed an executive order clarifying that no taxpayer dollars could be spent on abortions.
“As a pro-life congressman, I will continue to act according to my deeply held beliefs and those of my constituents,” Donnelly said at the time. “I believe that means opposition to abortion, as well as improving access to health care for all people.”
But anti-abortion groups called the executive order a sham, even as abortion rights groups complained it could lead most private health insurers to stop offering abortion services.
Susan B. Anthony list and other anti-abortion groups targeted Donnelly for defeat in the fall, with billboards, a bus tour, ads and mailings accusing him of backing public funding of abortions.
His vote for the Affordable Care Act is still one of three highlighted by the group in door hangers they’ve been delivering to Hoosier homes since October.
SBA List is also criticizing his switch on Title X funding for Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood funding
Donnelly voted multiple times in the House to block funding to Planned Parenthood and was one of only two Senate Democrats who did so in August 2015 after anti-abortion activists released undercover videos allegedly showing group officials talking about selling tissue from aborted fetuses.
Donnelly’s campaign treasurer — former Indiana Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis, who declined interview requests — quit in protest of the August 2015 vote.
Months later, Donnelly switched his position after Planned Parenthood announced it would stop taking reimbursements for supplying tissue from aborted fetuses to medical researchers.
“I am comfortable that he got to a point where he’s supportive of the funding of entities that provide health care, particularly to the less fortunate,” said Betty Cockrum, the former longtime leader of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky.
During her 15 years heading the organization, Cockrum would touch base with Donnelly two or three times a year and found him “always available to have discussions” about reproductive health issues.
“He demonstrates a thoughtfulness and a measured approach to things that I quite frankly find comforting,” she said. “There isn’t anything kneejerk about it. And it’s a balancing act.”
Donnelly told IndyStar he no longer votes to block funding to Planned Parenthood, as he did when he was in the House, because his job as a senator is to represent the entire state. And there are communities in Indiana where Planned Parenthood is the only health care provider.
“I still wish Planned Parenthood did not provide abortions,” Donnelly said. “But I think being pro-life also means you want to make sure that women and families have access to basic health care and preventive services, which Planned Parenthood provides, a lot of time in rural communities as maybe one of the only providers.”
Still, Donnelly is one of only three Senate Democrats who does not have a 100 percent voting record with Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which tallies Donnelly as supporting its positions 67 percent of the time since he’s been in Congress.
The National Right to Life Committee also counts Donnelly as having voted their way more than half the time. He was with them on 21 votes they cared most about and against them on 16 in the House and Senate.
Yet anti-abortion groups are going after one of the few Democrats who sometimes votes with them because the times that he doesn’t, “babies die,” said Liebel of SBA List, which expects to canvass hundreds of thousands of homes in Indiana before the November election. The group recently held news conferences around the state to urge Donnelly to support Kavanaugh and give back to states “the power to legislate on abortion” if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Donnelly has declined to say whether Roe v. Wade should be undone, calling it “the law of the land.”
Braun is clear about the outcome he wants.
“I hope Roe v. Wade gets overturned and brings that back into something that would suit not only Hoosiers, but Americans more so,” he said at a breakfast for Bloomington Republicans last year.
Where Hoosiers stand on abortion rights
In the most recent state-by-state data on abortion views gathered by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Hoosiers surveyed in 2014 thought abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. In the most recent Hoosier Survey conducted by Ball State University that asked the same question, nearly the same percent said in 2012 that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
With that close a split, Democrats hope Braun’s position will look too extreme. Richard Mourdock, the Republican Donnelly defeated in 2012 in part because of the abortion issue, also said he would not oppose an abortion needed to save the life of a woman.
“I’ve been on record from the get-go that I’m 100 percent pro-life,” Braun said when asked why he doesn’t support any exceptions.
During his three years in the state legislature, Braun voted with Indiana Right to Life on all their top issues, including to prohibit women from getting an abortion due to a fetus’s race, sex or diagnosis of disability.
Signed into law in 2016 by then-Gov. Mike Pence, the measure has been blocked by the lower courts. It’s one of the anti-abortion laws that could end up before the Supreme Court soon, potentially paving the way for a newly-configured court to redefine abortion rights.
Cockrum, the former longtime leader of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, said she understands why it’s hard for pro-choice advocates to be zealous about backing Donnelly, even if they would like Braun even less.
But while Planned Parenthood Action Fund isn’t directing any of its $20 million being spent on this year’s races to Indiana, Cockrum said she’ll stand behind Donnelly even if he votes to confirm Kavanaugh.
“We need to look at the bigger picture here…which is to avoid strengthening the anti-choice, anti-woman culture that exists in Washington, D.C. these days, and at state levels across the country,” Cockrum said.
Plus, she adds, “what politician gives you everything you want?”
This article was originally published at The Indianapolis Star.