With all the (justified) Sturm und Drang about the invertebrate Democratic response to the Massachusetts debacle, one key question has flown under the radar: where is the US Conference of Catholic Bishops?
I am still hopeful that House Progressives will come around on enacting the Senate bill, and fixing the difficulties through reconciliation (EJ Dionne beautifully summarizes the state of play here). But that still leaves out the crucial question of whether there is a House majority for enacting the Senate bill even with the progressives.
Remember that the House bill passed only after it enacted the Stupak Amendment, which would essentially forbid any insurer on the exchange from covering abortion. The Senate bill rejected this language, opting for a somewhat more moderate compromise that allowed each state to decide whether its exchange would allow abortions.
Bart Stupak himself has said that he will not vote for the Senate bill without his language. How many other anti-abortion Democrats will refuse to support the bill without Stupak’s language? Even if Stupak is the only Democrat to break on this, it would force the Democrats to replace his vote with someone who voted “no” originally.
There are a few candidates: Tennesse’s Bart Gordon, who is retiring. North Carolina’s Larry Kissell and Florida’s Suzanne Kosmas are in swing districts and probably were allowed to vote no for political purposes. Their votes might be needed next time. Nancy Pelosi will find one vote in there, but if Stupak has, say, 10 Democrats who will vote no, then the bill is cooked. And that’s where the Catholic bishops come in.
The Catholic church has a strong tradition of social justice work and commitment to the poor and working class. Does this tradition still matter? Or are the bishops so focused on abortion that nothing else matters? The Senate bill is a good compromise, very similar to the original compromise for Medicaid. Will the bishops throw over 30 million of the uninsured?
I have looked at their web site: the Conference has been very quiet on the issue. Its chair of “pro-life issues”, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, condemned earlier versions of the Senate bill, but has said nothing on the final bill. Since the Senate bill passed just before Christmas, the Conference has called on parishes to write their representatives and demand no federal funds for abortions, but that is an empty call, because the House Democratic leadership claimed that they had done that even before Stupak. And more recently, they said that the health care reform issue must continue, although they have also said that if the bill does not adequately forbid federal funding of abortions, then Congress should reject it.
I am hopeful that the bishops, like so many on the Hill, are just trying to get the best language that they can. If they are satisfied, they can give anti-abortion Democrats the political cover to vote for this bill. If they aren’t, they can kill this thing — and millions of the uninsured. That would give quite a new spin to the phrase “pro-life.”