Smart Lobbying, Grassroots Engagement: Planned Parenthood's Strategy to Defeat the Stupak Amendment

When Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards addressed a private phone call of bloggers yesterday, she had to apologize for her hoarse voice: "I've spent the last few days yelling at members of Congress."

Richards, alongside other liberal pro-abortion rights groups, has launched an all-out war on the Stupak amendment, the anti-abortion rights provision approved by the House in Saturday's health-care vote. In yesterday's conference call, she described Planned Parenthood's strategy to insure the Stupak amendment's exclusion from the final health-care bill as two-pronged: "Smart lobbying strategies in Washington [and] very robust grassroots engagement."

The grassroots engagement part kicked off nearly overnight. On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood hosted a "standing room only" meeting with "dozens" of progressive groups at its office in Washington. Politico reported that, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Service Employees International Union were in attendance. They have logged thousands of calls to members of Congress and, last night, launched an online petition. Next week Planned Parenthood will host a meeting with CEOs from reproductive health groups, labor movement, and broader progressive movement.

These wide-ranging organizing efforts indicate that Planned Parenthood needs the Stupak amendment to be an issue not just for the reproductive health groups but the entire liberal community. "[We can] use this as an opportunity to reorganize and energize the movement writ large," Richards said. So far, it seems to be working.

But what about the other prong, the smart lobbying in Washington? That will likely prove more challenging. Abortion, with its moral and political complexities, is generally not one where politicians can be lobbied to change their position.

So lobbying the Senate will be difficult, but also absolutely necessary. Why? The Senate does not have a pro-abortion rights majority. According to NARAL's breakdown, there are 40 solid supporters of abortion rights, 41 in clear opposition, and 19 somewhere in the middle. That is actually pretty similar, percentagewise, to the abortion-rights landscape of the House that approved the Stupak amendment.

Moreover, Planned Parenthood is up against strong abortion opponents who have already staked out their opposition. As Gaggler Katie Connolly pointed out a few days ago, moderate Democrat Ben Nelson has demanded a Stupak-like provision. Stupak has inserted himself into the Senate battle too. "We are in contact with senators to make sure our language holds," Stupak told the Detroit News on Tuesday. "The other side is playing with fire."

When NEWSWEEK pressed Richards on the actual "smart lobbying" strategy she had in mind, she was vague: "I think we'll focus on solidifying our core base. We have very good support in the U.S. Senate ... We have to shore up the supporters we have." She points out that neither of the current versions of the Senate bill have a Stupak-like amendment (it was voted down twice in committee). Besides, just getting the amendment on the floor would require 60 votes. But with only 40 staunch abortion-rights supporters in the Senate, Planned Parenthood will need to have more than a "core base" on their side. Richards has been working the Senate for months now, but she still has a lot more yelling left to do.