Will Stupak and the Catholic Bishops Kill Health-Care Reform?

Personal Health

UPDATE: Rachel Maddow reports that Stupak likely only has four or five members of Congress committed to voting with him against the Senate version of the health-care reform bill if he doesn't get new anti-abortion language added to the bill. Stupak claims he has at least twice as many. Maddow named her source as an aide to one of the House Democratic leaders.

With the congressional spring recess fast approaching, it's crunch time, once again, for health-care reform. And once again, one Democrat, Rep. Bart Stupak, is threatening to kill the bill -- with the help of 10 or so anti-choice compatriots he claims stand with him -- if the final deal does not include the draconian language on abortion contained in the health-care reform legislation passed by the House in November.

Stupak no doubt feels like the big man in this fight, the guy who can stop the clock and deprive some 30 million uninsured Americans a shot at having health-care coverage. In truth, however, the big men are the ones in mitres and vestments: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was they who demanded the Stupak amendment to the House bill, which bars any American who receives a government subsidy to purchase health insurance through a government-run insurance exchange from purchasing a plan that includes coverage for abortion.

The bishops lined up enough anti-choicers, who pledged to withhold their votes on the reform bill unless Stupak's demand was met, to force Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow Stupak to bring his amendment to the House floor for a vote. There, aided by Republicans who went on to vote against the health-care bill, Stupak's amendment was attached to the House bill.

Now, Stupak and the bishops are back, ready to squelch any final deal unless their demands are met. Even if Democratic leaders are wiling -- and they may very well be -- it will be a tricky business to include language acceptable to Stupak and his pointy-hatted friends in any final package to be voted on in the House. It's all about process, and who can game it.

You'll recall that, before the new year, both the House and the Senate passed separate health-care reform bills, which everyone assumed would go to a conference committee where the differences would be hammered out before each chamber voted on a final package. Then Republican Scott Brown won the seat vacated by the death of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, and a whole new strategy had to be arrived at, since the Democrats no longer had the nominal 60-vote super-majority required to break a filibuster.

The strategy is this: The House must now pass the Senate version of the bill -- which contains provisions that are problematic for many House members, and omits others, such as a limited public option, that are important to others -- and then do "fixes" to the Senate bill via a Senate process known as budget reconciliation, which can be won on a simple majority. In other words, a budget reconciliation bill is not subject to the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote majority to break.

But Bart Stupak and his bishop friends have a big problem with the Senate bill, and it's one that likely cannot be fixed via the budget reconciliation process: the Senate bill's harsh anti-abortion provision isn't draconian enough for them. Where the Stupak amendment to the House bill forbids the sale of abortion coverage in the insurance exchanges to people receiving subsidies, the Senate bill requires the consumer to write a separate check for abortion coverage in order to comply with existing law that forbids the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. And for this, they're willing to jettison health-care coverage for 30 million people, many of them children -- all ostensibly for the sake of fetal life.

The budget reconciliation process is designed specifically for measures that directly affect the federal budget. Abortion coverage in the health-care reform bill would not. In order to "fix" the Senate bill to Stupak's liking, the Senate parliamentarian would have to make an exception to that rule, and in so doing would open up a whole new can of worms. If abortion is game for an exception to what is known as the Byrd rule, then why not the public option? (Really, why not?) If a Senator tries to add the abortion language into the reconciliation process and the parliamentarian objects, then 60 votes will be needed to override the parliamentarian's point of order -- a very tall order to fill.

But the bishops have promised to do everything they can to help with that little problem. Here's what one of the bishops' chief lobbyists told Politico last week:

“We would strongly urge everyone, Democratic and Republican, to vote to waive the point of order,” Richard Doerflinger, an associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told POLITICO. “Whether it would be enough to get to 60 votes, I can’t predict. We would certainly try.”

So, who do the bishops represent? "It's obvious that Catholics -- Catholics in the pews -- have never supported the sexual and reproductive-health views that the bishops actually hold," says CFC President Jon O'Brien. So, when the bishops are lobbying on Capitol Hill, who are they lobbying on behalf of? They're lobbying on behalf of the 350 [members] of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops."
On Tuesday, Stupak told the Associated Press that he is optimistic he will get his deal on the Senate bill. If that happens, the winners will be 350 celibate men. The losers? Millions of American women.

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