Cincinnati – Seven months ago, on a cool evening in late March, Rep. Steve Driehaus, a freshman Democrat from Cincinnati, huddled with Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper — a fellow freshman from northwestern Pennsylvania — and a few of their colleagues at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex dive on Capitol Hill. It was the night before the Obamacare roll call, and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scrambled, their votes remained up for grabs. As they conversed, apparently unnoticed — even as visiting Tea Party activists munched on chips and salsa at the next table – the Democrats focused on the issue that had haunted them since the debate began: the health-care bill’s abortion language.
For months, Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) had been leading their cause, battling to gut the bill of abortion funding. Stupak, to the relief of his acolytes, had taken a dogged public position and seemed unwilling to waver on his principles. Yet as the clock ticked, Stupak and the White House were negotiating on a complicated compromise: If Stupak and his followers voted for the bill, President Obama would issue an executive order prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion. With the president advocating the merits of such an order, the pro-life Democrats mulled their options: Stick with Stupak and accept the deal, or drop out, thwarting Pelosi.
House Republican leader John Boehner, who grew up in the Cincinnati area and whose district is in southwestern Ohio, knew that Driehaus would be one to watch in the final hours. A couple of days earlier, reflecting on the upcoming vote in his private Capitol office, Boehner told me that, politically, Driehaus would be a “dead man” if he sided with a Democratic deal on abortion.
“I’ve always thought that this would be the issue,” Boehner said at the time. “This is public funding for abortion. They know it can’t be fixed.” Should Driehaus vote for Obamacare, Boehner continued, he would not be able to “go home to the west side of Cincinnati. The Catholics will run him out of town.”
Driehaus didn’t listen. At 4 p.m. on March 21, hours before Obamacare passed the House, Driehaus walked slowly into the House Radio-Television Gallery for a press conference. He stood to Stupak’s immediate right as the Michigander explained his group’s decision to back the health-care bill and its accompanying executive order. Numerous pro-life groups, suspicious of the long-term power of a non-legislative document, were critical of the Stupak group’s decision.
Seven months later, Stupak has announced his retirement. But Driehaus is running for reelection, and the shadow from March still lingers in Cincinnati’s seven hills.
Back in Ohio’s 1st district, Driehaus is struggling to fend off Republican Steve Chabot, who had represented the district for seven terms, starting with the Contract with America election in 1994, until Driehaus topped him by 14,000 votes in 2008. Chabot, a self-described “social conservative” who once sponsored a bill to ban partial-birth abortion, has hammered Driehaus on his health-care maneuvers at almost every campaign stop.
“He’s voted with Pelosi 94 percent of the time, but that was his most egregious vote,” Chabot tells me, backstage at a GOP rally in downtown Cincinnati. Driehaus’s steadfast allegiance to Stupak, he adds, “was probably the most damaging thing that he has done, as far as making himself vulnerable.”
“He was already vulnerable before that,” Chabot adds, “and I think we would have beaten him even without that vote, but he led people here to believe that he was going to vote against it. The Democratic leadership was clearly working on him, and, ultimately, they got him.”
As voters prepare to head to the polls, Driehaus, a 44-year-old former community organizer, is flailing, trying at the eleventh hour to cut his Pelosi ties. In a chat with Cincinnati.com last week, Driehaus hedged when asked whether he would support Pelosi for speaker. “I expect Speaker Pelosi will have a challenge within the caucus,” he said. “And I will hold my vote until I know who’s running for speaker.”