At this point, I think it's safe to say that the Republicans ("You lie!") are pretty much irrelevant when it comes to debates about health-care reform. For religion reporters, that ought to be a very liberating statement for obvious reasons. There are still stories over there, in part because there are some Republicans and their religious supporters who actually do want an improved, most just, health-care system. But that's not where the action is at the moment.
No, the action is in the middle of the faith-based marketplace and on the left. All of the debates that really matter are taking place between Democrats and, once again, they are about abortion and health-care rationing that's controlled by the government or by independent boards set up by the government. People who care about the latter -- hello, U.S. Catholic bishops -- are trying to find ways to talk about this issue without the press ensnaring them in a "death panels" trap.
So keep your eye on one story: The attempts by pro-life Democrats to force and up-or-down vote on the status of the Hyde Amendment. Why is that so important? You see, there are all kinds of non-GOP people who are convinced that the legislation favored by President Barack Obama would, one way or another, steer tax dollars toward abortion coverage. You can also turn to Factcheck.org on that.
This leads me to a report by U.S. News & World Report scribe Dan Gilgoff -- written before the Obama speech, mind you -- on a very timely topic: "Religious Progressives Raise Concerns About Abortion in Healthcare Reform." It's pretty complex stuff, but here's the summary material:
Progressive faith leaders and organizations are pushing hard for healthcare reform along the lines that President Obama has articulated, but some of the most prominent have grown concerned with the House healthcare bill's provisions for abortion coverage in the public health insurance plan. They object to pooled premiums of those participating in the public plan going to abortion coverage for others in the plan, as laid out in the House healthcare bill. Americans who are opposed to abortion, the activists say, shouldn't be forced to pay for abortion procedures for others with their premiums.
Other faith-based liberals object to the House bill's authorization of the Department of Health and Human Services to decide which types of abortions are covered by the public option. These religious activists, while opposed to much of the religious right's agenda, are pressuring the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats to revise the amendment to the House bill that deals with abortion, authored by California Rep. Lois Capps.
Once again, the key is for journalists to try to find out who actually wants health-care reform and who does not. Then they can begin to pursue the complex divisions INSIDE the pro-health-care camp. That's where the stories will unfold and, as always, abortion is one of the easiest fault lines to spot and define.
Here is a key chunk of Gilgoff's report:
Progressive religious activists ... generally favor a robust public option in healthcare reform and stand by the Capps amendment's ban on federal funds for abortion in the private plans. But left-leaning activists are worried that without revising abortion provisions in the public option, the debate over abortion can bring down the whole healthcare reform effort.
"As Catholics, we recognize that dramatically shifting the way we fund abortion is problematic not only for us, but also is the wrong way to go politically in terms of reaching consensus with pro-life members of Congress," says John Gehring, deputy communications director for the liberal group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "It's definitely a sticking point, and it would be unfair to characterize it only as a conservative concern."
Once again, the question is rather simple: Is the White House willing to back a health-reform package that can be supported by traditional Catholics, progressive Evangelicals, pro-life mainline Protestants, most Eastern Orthodox believers and other members of the wider religious world that wants to see strong restrictions on abortion? Does he want Catholic bishops standing behind him at the bill-signing photo op?
Over at Time, Michael Scherer is covering some of the same territory -- with some concise, edgy language on the president's repeated claims that current bills would not use tax dollars to fund abortions.
"You've heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion," Obama said recently in a call to religious leaders. "Not true." But this last statement, while technically correct, does not tell the whole story. The health-care reform proposed by House Democrats, if enacted, would in fact mark a significant change in the Federal Government's role in the financing of abortions.
"It would be a dramatic shift," says Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who has vowed to oppose the bill because of how it would affect abortion. Stupak says dozens of House Democrats may join him in opposing a final health-care compromise unless the abortion language is changed, presenting a clear challenge to Democratic vote counters that could imperil a party-line vote.
Stupack goes on to say that the president either does not understand the legislation or is intentionally trying to mislead voters. That's something that a Democrat does not want to have to say. He did not, however, call Obama a liar, which is a verbal grenade that the president tossed at others.
This is an important quote for religion-beat reporters. Read it carefully (best of all, in the context of the full text):
Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.
There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up -- under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.
So we have a presidential claim that some partisans are lying. Then he says other people are making false claims about other issues, including the abortion-funding question.
The bottom line question is this: Where does the "It is a lie" language stop? Did the president just call the U.S. Catholic bishops (click here for coverage), several dozen pro-life Democrats, Feminists for Life, leaders of the pro-life left and many other people liars?