Stupak Is Back: Why Abortion Will Be a Key Issue as Health-Care Reform Moves Forward

Remember back about two months ago, when pro-choice groups were organizing "Stop Stupak!" rallies after a surprise abortion restriction found its way into the final House bill? And then about three weeks ago, when Sens. Harry Reid and Ben Nelson were haggling over an abortion compromise, just hours before the final Christmas Eve vote?

Time to get ready for round three of the abortion battle.

With Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts, the Democratic leadership has some serious work cut out for them, and most of it has to do with figuring out what it will take to get the House on board. "We'll be looking to see what the mood of the House is and what they want to do," Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan told the Hill today. A lot of the focus has been on the liberal representatives and whether they will support the Senate's more conservative legislation. But on the right, there's another group to key an eye on: Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and his pro-life allies, who can put abortion back on the table as a key issue and stand in the way of the legislative options on the table now that the Democrats no longer have a filibusterproof Senate majority.

Stupak & Co. can refuse to go with the White House–supported option of the House approving the Senate bill, which has weaker abortion restrictions. There is a second option that would allow for more bargaining: the House passes the Senate bill with the assurance that budget reconciliation (which would only require 51 votes in the Senate) would follow. As Jon Alter wrote today earlier on The Gaggle, it's "a messy approach but doable." But since haggling in budget reconciliation would be limited to the budgetary issues, there would likely be little room to change abortion language.

Stupak has said many, many times before that he won't support a bill without his amendment. If that would mean the downfall of health-care reform, then so be it. "It's not the end of the world if [the bill] goes down," he told The New York Times a few weeks ago. And this isn't a Ben Nelson situation, where he's a lone politician throwing down the gauntlet. Stupak claims—and so far, I haven't heard any dispute to this—that he has 10 or 11 Democrats committed to opposing the Senate bill's less restrictive language. Given that the House health-care bill passed with a five-vote margin, this is not a threat to take lightly.

The Democrats don't necessarily need Stupak himself to support the Senate bill and, chances are, he's too steeped in the issue to pull back now. But losing Stupak's vote is not a fatal blow; the Democrats are working with a five-vote margin in their favor and there are those 10 or 11 other, unnamed Democrats, supposedly standing behind Stupak. In the comings days, the Democratic leadership ought to be giving serious thought to how to work with these representatives if they want to see the legislation move forward.