The Politico talks to the bishops!

Some GetReligion readers may have heard that there is this little battle going on here in Washington, D.C., about health-care reform.

You have probably read that this is a knock-down, drag-out battle between Democrats and Republicans. However, if you are reading some of the nation’s better newspapers (and lots of weblogs), you will have heard that the actual battle is inside the Democratic Party, between Democrats who are pro-abortion rights (think Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) and those who are pro-life, to one degree or another.

Thus, just the other day I wrote the following:

I am left asking two questions, one of which is very obvious. The second one isn’t, but I bet that Pelosi and President Obama know the answer to it.

(1) How many votes remain solid in U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak’s coalition that rallied in favor of pro-life language consistent with the existing Hyde Amendment? Follow-up question: What’s happening right now at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and in the offices of other pro-life groups that actually want to see a health-care reform bill reach the president’s desk?

(2) How many mainstream Democrats have threatened to vote against health-care reform if it contains the Stupak language that forbids tax dollars paying for abortions?

In other words, while everyone focuses on the votes of conservatives and centrists, how many liberals are willing to block the president’s attempt at health-care reform if it does not contain abortion benefits? How many of those Democrats are pro-abortion-rights Catholics and mainline Protestants (in other words, consistent members of the religious left)?

All year long, I’ve been wondering why journalists are not writing about these basic questions. I mean, people, do the math.

Thus, I was amazed to see this simple headline the other day in The Politico: “Bishops offer help with Senate.” What is especially interesting about this article is that it address some rather obvious questions in the U.S. House, but then jumps ahead to the math in the U.S. Senate. Here’s the top of the story:

The Roman Catholic bishops signaled Thursday that if agreement is reached with House leaders on anti-abortion language, the church would work to get the votes needed to protect the provisions in the Senate — and thereby advance the shared goal with Democrats of health care reform.

“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.”

“I think it’s something we should explore,” said Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), a longtime opponent of abortion. “It could be something that could carry out the bishops’ objective.”

Note that, once again, the issue is who actually wants to pass a health-care bill. If the pro-life Democrats stand firm in the House, would votes on the cultural left then kill the bill? What would the White House do?

But that’s old news. The interesting thought here is whether the U.S. Catholic bishops would have any street cred with Republicans in the Senate. Are there Republicans that would want to see a bill passed that does not include funding for abortion? Or would the GOP brass put the pressure on the kill the bill, no matter what?

Again, who wants to see a health-care bill passed?

Clearly, the bishops do. With that in mind, do the Senate math.

That House deal — since weakened by the Senate — is what the bishops want to revive now as part of Obama’s final push on health care. But to survive the Senate, any revisions would need 60 votes to overcome points of order under the expedited reconciliation procedures being contemplated. Conventional wisdom has held that it will be next to impossible to cut this Gordian knot, since Republicans — with 41 votes — will be determined to disrupt health care reform. But in the November House debate, the bishops moved forcefully to squelch Republican efforts to derail the Stupak amendment; Doerflinger indicated the conference would take the same posture — that this is a vote of conscience.

“If the Stupak amendment or something equivalent to it were in the reconciliation package on the Senate floor and it was necessary to get 60 votes to waive the point of order,” he said, “we would strongly urge everyone, Democratic and Republican, to vote to waive the point of order.”

“That could be the key vote,” Kildee told POLITICO. “The bishops could say, ‘Are you really with us?’ That’s the key vote.”

Now there is a question worth pursuing. If the pro-life Democrats win in the House, would some GOP pro-lifers in the Senate see health-care reform through a different lens? In other words, would voting “yes” become the pro-life vote? For Catholics? For evangelicals? And on the other side of the aisle, what would pro-abortion-rights Catholics do?

Other than on blogs, is anyone writing about this side of the issue? In the mainstream press?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    you will have heard that the actual battle is inside the Democratic Party, between Democrats who are pro-abortion rights (think Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) and those who are pro-life, to one degree or another.

    This is an interesting story and certainly one important part of the equation. But from a political perspective there are many other factors such as the House-Senate distrust, people who are concerned that the bill does not do enough to reduce costs, those that want single-payer or nothing and so forth.

    So, yes, do the math, but also do the math with all the voices in play. For example, look at this analysis:

    I doubt that the Republicans will break their lock-step opposition to the bill no matter who approaches them. Everything they have said is that they will fight every change in whatever way they can. So I think the Republicans are much more interested in attempting to make political points and in maintaining lock-step ideological purity than in reaching an accomodation on abortion language.

  • tmatt

    Spiking posts that are political attacks.

    Please discuss the media coverage of these issues.

  • dalea

    I have seen no MSM coverge of this at all. The blogs are filled with the subject. Kos calls this Stupak’s coathanger amendment, which seems to have become standard left blog terminology. From what I have read on the lefty blogs, there are probably only 3 votes for Stupak when push comes to shove.

  • tmatt


    This is not the forum to attack the president or the health-care plan. Talk about the journalism issues.

  • Peter

    I wish a reporter would actually back up the suggestion that the Bishops actually support expanded health care. Point to specific actions–unrelated to abortion– that show the Bishops have actually lobbied for hcr efforts. Reporters let the Bishops spin, so how about some actual reporting on non-abortion efforts.

  • Harris

    Not surprisingly, Jonathan Chait has offered the best answer to the L’affaire Stupak: it’s to give the Hyde Amendment greater resiliency.

    As to the internal Democratic angle, I would think it emerges in the aftermath rather than in the run-up. If an acceptable compromise is reached (see Chait’s article), the tension simmers; if a compromise cannot be reached and the bill gets scuttled, then we are in civil war territory. And that would indeed be a story.

  • dalea

    Today, Tuesday March 9th, the Progressives have found a challenger to Stupak:!

    In their usual confused and disorganized way, Progressives have not gotten it together for Ms Saltonstall. I imagine by the weekend she will have the full Progressive fundraising movement behind her. And the calling shall begin. It will be interesting to see if the bishops can prevail here, in Stupak’s heavily Lutheran disrict.