In the News 2009

Pelosi Learns to Live With Anger on Her Left


When liberal Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky met last week with about 50 like-minded women in a Chicago home in the posh suburb of Highland Park, she quickly found herself explaining what’s become the most contentious legislative trade-off Nancy Pelosi has made in her three years as Speaker of the House.

Like Pelosi, Schakowsky is an ardent supporter of abortion rights. But her constituents were incredulous that the Speaker had decided to permit opponents of abortion rights a vote on language-fortifying restrictions on the use of federal funding for abortion services. An added sting was the House’s easy adoption of the provision as an amendment to its health care overhaul bill, which provided proof that the Democratic-controlled House now has a formidable majority opposed to abortion rights — including a quarter of the members of the Democratic Caucus.

That reality, however unwelcome to many liberals, was no secret to Pelosi and her leadership team.

Schakowsky, a chief deputy majority whip and a vice chairwoman of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus, said her audience was “stunned” at the development. “They wanted to know how this happened,” she recalled, saying she explained that the intricacies of final negotiations over the health care bill required swallowing what she considered an extremely bitter pill.

Fully two weeks after the vote, the intense dismay expressed by abortion rights supporters in Chicago and across the country has persisted, as has the political fallout for Pelosi. Long derided by Republicans as a San Francisco liberal, the Speaker now finds herself with one of her most prominent legislative achievements — pushing President Obama’s top domestic priority through the House — tarnished in the eyes of so many of her customary allies on the left. Adding irony to the situation, last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, an abortion rights opponent, put forward the Senate leadership’s version of a health care overhaul measure with a far less restrictive abortion coverage provision.

What’s angering and puzzling to Pelosi’s ideological equals is that such a setback was the last thing they expected from a House under her control. They have vowed to keep the language out of the final version of the bill and are counting on Pelosi to make that happen should the legislation advance into a conference with the Senate.

Pelosi’s Test

Defeat of the language will require political skill, careful negotiation and exacting vote counting. Just as her mettle has been tested by allowing the provision in order to win enough votes to push the overhaul through the House, so will her resolve be tested if she’s to keep that same language out of the final version.

And her friends in the abortion rights community are making clear they will cut the Democratic leadership no slack on the matter. “They have to put this right,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “This won’t pass muster. This is not a blip on the screen. This is an earthquake.”

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Pelosi has raised the stakes in a debate that has riven Congress for the better part of three decades, although it has been out of the national spotlight for several years. “It is a whole new game because pro-choice Americans are paying attention to what the anti-choice forces are trying to do,” she said.

Northup’s group has already started airing cable television and online ads decrying the House language.

Pelosi admits that she disappointed groups she has closely identified with throughout her 22 years in Congress. She now faces the task of pacifying them while also trying to help deliver a health care overhaul to the White House. Asked at a Harvard University forum two weekends ago whether abortion rights groups were right to be upset with her, Pelosi acknowledged that she was boxed in: “They are right. This whole discussion should not be about abortion. It should be about health insurance reform.”

At her first news conference since the Nov. 7 House vote, Pelosi, always the dogged negotiator, expressed optimism that an acceptable compromise can be reached. At the same time, she hardened her public opposition to the amendment, offered by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak . Pelosi said it goes well beyond a federal policy in place since 1979 — known as the Hyde amendment — that has restricted federal funding of abortion services unless the woman’s life is endangered or the pregnancy results from rape or incest. “The Stupak amendment goes beyond maintaining the status quo,” she said. “But again, the conversations continue, and I’m optimistic that we will find a common ground.”

Uncomfortable Math

For all the bravado about changing the language, Pelosi’s options are limited, and she’ll have to walk a fine mathematical line.

First, the Democrats, who hold 258 seats to the GOP’s 177, won passage of the health bill by just 220-215, because 39 Democrats bucked the leadership and Obama and voted “no.” But majority leaders became convinced that they could not pass the bill even that narrowly without allowing the Stupak vote, in which the amendment was adopted with the support of 64 Democrats.

Of that group, 23 voted against final passage of the bill anyway, so they are not likely converts no matter what happens in the Senate or in conference. But the 41 Democrats who voted both for the Stupak measure and for the legislation would presumably be amenable to altered abortion language — as would the 16 Democrats who opposed both the Stupak amendment and the underlying bill.

However you cut it, Pelosi’s margin is narrow. Should a conference report come before the House, leaders can lose only 41 of their own members and still pass the final bill, assuming the one GOP vote in favor, Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana, remains in the majority’s corner.

The situation highlights a reality not widely recognized by some Democrats: The House’s majority of abortion rights opponents is due in part to the party’s successes. In winning the majority in 2006 and expanding it in 2008, House Democrats won districts where their candidates were often anti-abortion or at best lukewarm to expanding abortion rights.

In recruiting candidates in competitive districts, Democratic leaders assured them that they would avoid forcing them to cast votes on “guns, gays and abortion” — shorthand for the sorts of divisive social issues that in the past dogged Democrats and helped Republicans paint opponents as out-of-touch liberals.

On the left, some 40 advocates of abortion rights in the House have pledged to oppose the final overhaul bill if it retains the Stupak language. Making good on that threat could come very close to killing the legislation — an outcome that would damage not only Obama’s presidency but also the Democrats’ prospects in the 2010 midterm election.

The 16 Democrats who support abortion rights but opposed the initial House measure, mainly because of its cost, remain a wild card. If a conference brings down the price tag, those lawmakers might return to the fold to back the bill.

Limited Options

Finding a winning compromise and getting it into the final bill will not be easy. For one thing, Pelosi will lack in conference negotiations the same level of power she wields in the House. She’s unlikely, though, to face the trade-off she confronted the day before the House passed its bill: Then, Democratic opponents of abortion rights were threatening to have 40 members oppose the legislation unless they were allowed to vote on imposing firm federal restrictions on abortion rights. At the same time, Republicans were preparing procedural steps to press for a vote on similar language. “They would have prevailed,” Pelosi said last week.

Last week, Stupak and his fellow abortion rights opponents lambasted Reid’s language, saying it would establish the first federal mandate to provide abortion services. They want the final bill to mirror the House language and block abortions — except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the pregnant woman — from being covered by the “public option” and by plans people buy with government subsidies.

Stupak says his amendment restates federal policy. But abortion rights advocates, now joined by Pelosi in their critique, say it would go further in banning coverage of abortions, not just in government insurance plans, but also in plans that women might buy with government subsidies.

The Senate language is similar to a compromise adopted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last summer that California Democrat Lois Capps offered and that may provide the key to a compromise. An important distinction is that the Senate bill would allow the public option to cover elective abortion while the House bill would not. The Senate language goes further, requiring the exchanges selling health insurance to offer at least one plan that provides abortion coverage and one that does not.

With a final Senate vote weeks away, Pelosi and House negotiators have no way of knowing what abortion language will end up in its final version. And while senators have more power to offer amendments than House members, it is widely recognized that it will be difficult for advocates of more stringent limits on abortion funding to find the 60 votes that will be needed to make changes to Reid’s bill.

Going into any upcoming conference, Pelosi is angling for the Reid language. “There is a way to do this with a compromise,” she said, mindful of what James A. Morone, a Brown University historian on health care policy, calls the next test of Pelosi’s leadership.

The article originally appeared in Congressional Quarterly.

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