Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) leads a group of about a dozen Democratic representatives who demanded that restrictions on public funding for abortion services be included in the House health reform bill last fall. He is now insisting that he and his group will not vote for the Senate bill, currently before the House, unless some way is found to tighten the Senate bill’s restrictions on abortion. However, because the Senate no longer has the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican filibusters, the only way for the House to amend the bill is through a parallel “sidecar” budget bill that would be passed in the Senate via budget reconciliation rules. Abortion is not a budget issue so Stupak’s concerns probably cannot be addressed in the sidecar bill.
Is Stupak trying to kill health reform? He says he isn’t and he is continuing to negotiate with House leaders. Stupak’s statements closely parallel those coming from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which strongly supports the larger reform but insists on tighter abortion restrictions. The question for Stupak and the bishops is: Are you willing to risk losing your preferred abortion language to ensure passage of health reform? If so, the abortion issue could be split off into a third bill that would get a vote on its own. Such a deal would probably guarantee success for health reform. So far, Stupak and the bishops have not embraced this approach. Instead, they are demanding that their language be included in the sidecar bill. The bishops would then work to get 60 votes in the Senate to overrule the Parliamentarian and allow the abortion provision to pass via reconciliation. I don’t see how pro-choice Democrats and anti-reform Republicans could be convinced to vote with the bishops, so this strategy doesn’t appear to lead anywhere.
With victory on abortion unattainable for the bishops, the question remains: Do they want a bill? If so, face-saving votes can be arranged that demonstrate their commitment without killing the bill. If not, they will kill the bill. My personal guess is that they want a bill, but we probably won’t know for sure for about two weeks.