Maybe the bishops really mattered

President Bush Welcomes Pope Benedict XVI To White House

Last night around midnight, the House of Representatives passed a health care bill by a narrow margin -- 220 to 215. The Washington Post has the details. The story explains that the package is complex and "would affect virtually every American and fundamentally alter vast swaths of the health insurance industry." Private insurers would have to cover everyone (regardless of their risk) and would no longer be able to place limits on coverage. Premium increases will have to be run by federal regulators and "children" as old as 27-years-old will not be able to be removed from their parents' policies. In four years time, a new insurance system would be established. Individual Americans would be forced to buy insurance and small businesses that don't comply with the new requirement to provide insurance would be fined 8 percent of their payroll. A complex system to provide for low- and middle-income individuals through federal subsidies would be put in place along with the government itself entering the insurance marketplace.

Of course, this battle over a new federal entitlement program has been going on for a while and will go on for a long time, but yesterday's passage was a major victory for those who sought increased federal control of the insurance market. Still, the House version will bear very little resemblance to whatever version the Senate passes, assuming it does pass such a bill, and the two will have to be reconciled at a later date.

But the big drama in this whole story last night was the Stupak Amendment, without which this bill wouldn't have come even close to passing. Here's how the Post puts it, late in the story:

Introduced on July 14, the House package was approved in sections by three House committees. Since August, Pelosi has huddled behind closed doors with various factions of her diverse caucus to merge the three parts into comprehensive legislation.

The sticking points were clear from the start. Conservatives opposed the bill's price tag and limited efforts to cut costs. Moderates, who face the toughest 2010 reelection battles, were wary of big-government overtones in the public option. Democrats from wealthy districts opposed the tax on high earners, which originally would have affected taxpayers with annual incomes as low as $280,000.

One after another, the obstacles were overcome -- except for the simmering dispute over abortion. In early October, Rep. Bart Stupak, an antiabortion Democrat from Michigan, met with Pelosi to express the strong objections of about 40 Democrats to a provision in the legislation that appeared to allow federal funding of abortion. Stupak said they would oppose the bill unless the language was changed. Pelosi was noncommittal.

Late Friday, the Stupak coalition was still holding strong, and had gained a powerful ally in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose leadership has close connections to Pelosi. Over the strong objections of Democrats who support abortion rights, the speaker relented to Stupak, awarding him the only Democratic amendment on the floor.

Now, I was watching CNN last night (in the emergency room with my 5-month-old, as it happens) and the coverage was just abysmal. Beyond the host of the program asking, in all earnestness, whether Republicans really cared about the fact that soaring medical malpractice costs weren't addressed in the bill or whether they were just playing games, the team covering the bill's passage were in a constant state of confusion about this bizarre Stupak amendment and why it mattered so much. Now, I know you don't have the top dogs on the cable networks in the middle of the night but I could have done a better job sitting there on no sleep for a week and covered in my baby's vomit.

Readers of this blog are in no way surprised that the big drama last night was over abortion. Let's just look at a sample of recent posts. Here we point out to mainstream journalists an op-ed piece predicting that Stupak would be a force to be reckoned with. Here's a look at the New York Times' front-page story about the huge obstacle of abortion funding to passing a health care reform bill. Here we again point out to mainstream journalists Steven Waldman's excellent and highly prophetic column about why the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and their concern about abortion was so important. Here we're criticizing the absence of pro-life liberals from coverage of the debate. Here's an earlier post that makes the same point. And another. And another! In fact, this is a point we've been looking at for much of the year, with far too little coverage to praise.

I didn't even write most of these posts but it's pretty clear that, if you were paying attention, abortion would be a huge obstacle to overcome in passage of this bill. And that angle was just not covered well, which is surprising since it fits in with the bias many reporters have toward reporting the "fight" rather than the substance of the bills.

But in this space, we suggested over and over again that removing direct and indirect taxpayer funding of abortion would get pro-life Democrats on board.

Let's go back to that Waldman piece, where he writes:

I believe Bishops matter a great deal politically when it comes to the abortion-and-health care debate.

(1) They want health care reform to pass. Most pro-life groups are either opposed to Democratic-style universal health care plans (e.g. Family Research Council) or neutral (Right to Life Committee). The Catholic Bishops are the only major pro-life group that wants health care reform. As a result, they have no interest in using the abortion issue to block health care. So when they raise objections about abortion provisions, members of congress may perceive them to be substantively rather than politically motivated.

(2) They may influence pro-life Democrats. Pro-life Republicans are unlikely to support health care reform even if the legislation was perfect, from their perspective, on abortion. The more important group is pro-life Democrats, who may be on the fence on health care reform, or lean in favor, but have expressed unwillingness to support it if legislation subsdizes abortion. Even those pro-life Democrats who aren't Catholic can look at the Bishops as kindred spirits, since they too want to both oppose abortion aid and support health care reform. A reminder: about one quarter of Obama's coalition came from pro-life voters.

House Lawmakers Work Towards Vote On Health Care Legislation

And to be sure, Sojourners' Jim Wallis and other progressives basically said the same things throughout the year.

So let's go back to that line in the Post excerpt above. Did you catch it? Here it is again:

Late Friday, the Stupak coalition was still holding strong, and had gained a powerful ally in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose leadership has close connections to Pelosi.

Wow. This is a stunning statement and even more stunning in that it's put in there without any attribution. It should be attributed, actually, since I've never heard that before. I had no idea that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had "close connections" to Pelosi. One of the things we've noticed in recent months is the curious political strategy of the Catholic Bishops. It's not as if they were staying completely silent on the matter, but it seemed they pulled their punches at times. Could it be because of these "close connections"?

I want a fully-fleshed out story on just that one line in the Post coverage. And in the meantime, perhaps reporters shouldn't be so shocked next time the abortion debate rears its ugly head in policy debates.

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