So far, the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress have preferred to avoid high-profile fights on contentious social issues. After being dusted off for the campaign trail, the Freedom of Choice Act and gays in the military appear to have been put back on the shelf. Better to live to fight the culture wars another day than to give their opponents an easy target.
That doesn't mean that social liberals in the White House and Congress aren't moving quietly behind the scenes, however. President Obama waited a couple days after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to issue an executive order rescinding a ban on federal funding of organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas -- either to quiet controversy or in deference to his eminent pro-life supporters. But what's important is that he ultimately issued the executive order.
Now beleaguered pro-life members of Congress are gearing up for another fight. They worry that during the upcoming spending marathon, language preventing taxpayer funding of abortion may be deleted from appropriations bills in committee. Worse, they fear that a circumscribed amendment process will keep them from putting the gutted pro-life riders back in before final passage.
The biggest item that may be in jeopardy is the Hyde Amendment. Enacted under a Democratic Congress in 1976 and repeatedly renewed under presidents of both parties, it prohibits Medicaid funding of elective abortions. Advocates on both sides of the issue believe it has prevented numerous abortions, and the underlying policy has the support of many voters who consider themselves pro-choice. Also at issue are riders blocking taxpayer funding of human embryo experimentation and conscience clauses for medical professionals who do not wish to participate in abortions.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of legislators -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- held a press conference on Capitol Hill to announce that over 180 House members from both parties had signed a letter demanding that these pro-life policies either be left intact or subject to a direct vote by the full House. "We respectfully request that the pro-life riders be included in any legislation reported out of the Appropriations Committee," the members wrote to the House leadership. "If this Congress intends to rescind these riders, at a minimum the American people deserve a full debate with an up-or-down vote."
The initiative has been spearheaded by Congressmen Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), with the backing of Congressmen Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). Their concern is that however controversial a direct assault on the Hyde Amendment would be, these details will get lost in the process of crafting mammoth spending bills. "In the past, we might have lost a vote on stem cells," Jordan told TAS. "Now even votes on taxpayer funding and partial-birth are up in the air."
The Hyde Amendment hasn't been in serious danger since 1993, the last time there was a new Democratic president and Congress. Back then, Medicaid only paid for abortions when necessary to save the mother's life. A rape and incest exception was added to the Hyde Amendment as a compromise, the amendment was renewed rather than repealed, and the prohibition on taxpayer funding of most abortions remained in place.
Pro-lifers may hope history repeats itself but they aren't taking anything for granted. Although happy with the bipartisan support he and Shuler have already garnered, Jordan describes this Democratic majority as "much more cohesive" than those that have existed in the past, contrasting the small number of Blue Dog Democrats who voted against Obama's stimulus package with the larger number of Boll Weevils who voted for Ronald Reagan's tax cuts. He might also have mentioned the Democrats who voted against the Clinton tax increase in 1993. The first Clinton budget passed the House by just one vote despite an 80-vote Democratic majority.
Nevertheless, there are still about two dozen pro-life Democrats in the House. "The precise number depends on the issue," Party of Death author Ramesh Ponnuru recently explained in National Review. "In the last Congress, only 16 Democrats voted against providing taxpayer dollars for stem-cell research that destroys human embryos. Thirty-one voted against a bill to allow the cloning of embryos to be destroyed in such research."
There are many more House Democrats who come from districts where generic support for Roe might be politically feasible but taxpayer funding of abortion is not. Most pro-choice Republicans would vote in favor of retaining the Hyde Amendment as well, on the grounds that the right to choose doesn't confer a right to other people's money to pay for one's choices. The other riders vary in support, but all of them would stand a chance in a House vote.
That's why House pro-lifers are already mobilizing to make sure that, at the very least, they get one. "In football, there may be a team that everyone expects to win but they still have to suit up and play. Sometimes, the other team wins," Jordan says. "All we're asking for is to let us suit up and get in the game."
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