The Stupak Lessons
What the pro-life senators can learn from the Stupak amendment in the House.


Robert Costa

As Friday, November 6, faded into the early hours of Saturday, November 7, the Capitol was mostly empty. The statues of statesmen stood still in the silence. The night guards talked sports, quietly. The only footsteps were those of a handful of reporters loitering outside the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). Inside, Pelosi and House Democrats were huddling, hour after hour, trying to find a compromise on abortion so that Pelosi’s health-care bill could be brought to the floor and passed. As the clock struck midnight, there was some buzz inside, then nothing. Would there be a deal?

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) emerged. “We’re making progress,” he said. Abortion, he added, was a “small facet” of the internal House debate. Then he was gone. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) then popped out of the meeting to tell reporters that abortion was, in fact, a huge part of the deliberations between Pelosi and a group of pro-life Democrats led by Bart Stupak (Mich.). “There’s a fundamental disagreement,” said Waxman. “That’s just the reality.”

Diana DeGette (D., Colo.), leader of the House’s pro-choice caucus, soon stormed out and said that there was “no deal.” That was true, in a way. Indeed, Pelosi couldn’t find a way to include Stupak’s abortion language in her bill. Instead, she decided to let Stupak head upstairs to the Rules Committee that night to propose his own amendment, as a way of holding together her fragile Democratic caucus.

I sat next to Stupak as he went over his amendment, line by line, in the cramped Rules Committee room with a blue pen and legal pad. It was near 1 a.m. when Stupak took to the microphone and began proposing his amendment to bar abortion coverage from government-run insurance plans and from private insurance bought using government subsidies — or, as he preferred to put it, his amendment to keep the status quo. His face was grim, his eyes squinted: the look of a man who wouldn’t budge from his principles. “We wish to maintain current law,” said Stupak to the committee, referring to the Hyde amendment. “It’s not the time to rewrite policy.”

Less than 24 hours later, Stupak’s amendment passed the House by a vote of 240 to 194, with 64 Democrats joining 176 Republicans. It was a major victory for the pro-life cause. Instead of dipping his head in deference to Pelosi, Stupak had fought and won.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a pro-life Democrat from Nebraska, took close note of Stupak’s win. A month later, Nelson finds himself as a Stupak of sorts in the Senate — playing hardball with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) over the abortion language in the upper chamber’s health-care bill. On Monday, Nelson proposed an amendment to bar abortion coverage that, in his words, “mirrored” Stupak’s. A vote on the amendment is expected today.

What’s especially interesting is that Nelson’s political situation also mirrors Stupak’s. Reid needs Nelson just as Pelosi needed Stupak. Reid may not like Nelson’s amendment, but, as Pelosi did with Stupak’s, he knows he has to let it come to the floor. Both Reid and Pelosi calculate that if they let the pro-lifers have their conscience vote, then they’ll probably come around and vote on the final bill — quid pro quo. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), one of Nelson’s co-sponsors, has already said he would follow this course.

Most senators admit that passing the amendment will be tough. Nelson says that if his amendment fails, then he may vote against Reid’s bill. Of course, in that case, Reid will likely take Nelson aside and whisper that the House-Senate conference, where Reid’s bill will head if passed, is where all concerns can be ironed out.

Which brings us back to Stupak. During those heated late-night debates with Pelosi, Stupak was armed with the support of a powerful group: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops weighed in again on Monday, writing a letter urging senators to remember Stupak, with the verve of Texans reliving the Alamo. It seems that for the pro-life movement, the Stupak amendment has become almost mythic: the amendment that beat the pro-choice leadership. Nelson can’t stop mentioning the low-key Michigan congressman’s name. All of this is a well-earned compliment to Stupak, but what are the real lessons to be learned from his late-night House maneuver?

“Look, in the Senate, the Nelson amendment is a tough sell,” Stupak said in a conversation with NRO. “We all know that. I’m glad they’re going to get a vote. That’s progress. No matter what happens with it, it’ll still be an item for debate in conference should the bill pass. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Stupak says he has been eyeing the Senate’s handling of the abortion issue ever since the bill landed in the upper chamber. “I’ve talked to a few senators,” he says. “It’s possible that they might get 40 votes or more on the amendment. It’s possible.” Pro-choice Republicans, like Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, could complicate the issue. And, of course, 40 is still 20 votes short of the 60 the amendment would need to come to cloture.

Regardless of whether Nelson’s amendment passes, Stupak says that it’s important for all members of Congress, especially pro-life Democrats, to “have a chance to vote our conscience.”

“We had to get that vote,” says Stupak, speaking of his own amendment. “We had an agreement with the Speaker to include the language. It was the pro-choice people who rejected the agreement, so we moved toward an amendment. The American people paid attention. They saw my amendment pass the House, and polls showed that they clearly did not want to see public funding of abortion.”

So if Nelson’s amendment fails, and Reid’s bill passes, Stupak says he’s prepared to continue the fight for his amendment’s abortion language in conference. Reid’s bill, he says, has abortion language that’s “too ambiguous” when it comes to which plans individuals can buy with their own money through a health-insurance exchange. “I’m looking to keep my amendment’s language as it was written in the House. The majority of the House has already spoken on this, so that should be our position going forward. Everyone asks about my fallback, but we’ve already won this debate fair and square.”

It’s going to take leaders like Nelson, adds Stupak, to make sure that abortion coverage does not get expanded should a bill pass. “I don’t expect the Speaker or Senator Reid to be fighting for my amendment’s language,” he says.

Ultimately, says Stupak, it’s not about him or Nelson. Politics doesn’t drive him on this issue. “It’s about principle,” he says. “To understand this debate, you have got to understand that point. Other members know this. When they all ran, they had to face this issue. Most of them promised not to have public funding of abortion. It’s about time we remind them of those statements.”

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. fellow at the National Review Institute.