The bravest member of the House of Representatives, Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan, is calling President Barack Obama’s bluff on the question of federal funding of abortion in the health care bill.
Like other members, Stupak was sitting in the House chamber on Sept. 9 when Obama delivered a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress urging passage of the bill.
It was during this speech that Obama said it was false to claim the bill would provide insurance to illegal immigrants and that Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina famously blurted out, "You lie."
What is not famous — yet — is what Obama said just seconds after Wilson accused him of lying: "And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up: Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions."
Shortly after this speech, an incredulous Bart Stupak got Obama on the phone. Stupak, you see, knows as much about the status of abortion funding in the health care bill as anyone. He has proposed an amendment that would prohibit any federal money from paying for any part of any health insurance plan that covers abortion.
In July, Stupak’s amendment was narrowly defeated in the Energy and Commerce Committee, the House panel primarily responsible for drafting the bill. The committee instead approved an amendment by Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California. This amendment actually mandates that at least one insurance plan in each state-based "exchange" — the only place people receiving federal health-insurance subsidies will be allowed to buy health insurance — must cover abortions.
On Aug. 21, after Obama gave a radio talk insisting it was "not true" the health care plan would allow federal funding of abortion, FactCheck.org concluded, "Despite what Obama said, the House bill would allow abortions to be covered by a federal plan and by federally subsidized private plans."
Nothing had changed by Sept. 9, when Obama reiterated his claim to the joint session of Congress.
In an interview last week, I read to Stupak the exact words Obama said that night about abortion funding. Stupak told me that when he got Obama on the phone, he had read those very words to Obama himself.
Obama responded to Stupak — a former police officer — that when he said these words he was not talking about the actual health care plan developed by the House, he was talking about his own plan — a plan that has never been written.
"I called him," Stupak told me. "I called the president — had a discussion with the president. And I read exactly what you just said. And he said: What it says is ‘under my plan’ — meaning the president’s plan. And I said: With all due respect, sir, you do not have a plan. The only plan we have out is the House plan. So, I don’t know if it is a game of semantics or what."
Stupak said Obama did not try to tell him the House bill does not fund abortion.
I asked Stupak if, when Obama claimed "our plan" does not fund abortions, the president meant some plan that existed only "theoretically."
"Correct," said Stupak. "And when I pointed this out, he said: Go back and work with the people on your committee and get this matter worked out. Work with the speaker. Work with us, would you? And I said: Yes, I would. And we have tried."
All Stupak wants is a vote on his amendment when the health care bill comes to the floor. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have none of it.
"The speaker has told me I will not have my amendment," said Stupak.
He is now determined to defeat the health care bill itself if Pelosi does not change her mind. He intends to do this by defeating the special rule that would govern the terms of the debate on the bill — including what amendments would be allowed. Unless this rule is first approved by a majority vote, the House cannot move to the bill itself. Stupak has a large group of Democrats ready to vote against the rule.
"There’s about 40 likeminded Democrats like myself," he told me. "We’ll try to take down the rule. If all 40 of us vote in a bloc against the rule — because we think the Republicans will join us — we can defeat the rule."
In the meantime, Stupak has made a request to Obama that he has delivered through White House advisers: Tell Pelosi to put his language prohibiting abortion funding into the bill.
"I believe based upon what he said on Sept. 9 and in my conversation that he would not like to see federal funding of abortion," said Stupak.
"We are calling the president to get his attention and say: We have tried. We have tried to work this with the speaker, and we have been denied," said Stupak. "Our last opportunity to get this in the bill, to avoid a fight on the rule, is if you call the speaker and have her put the language back in."
Stupak is waiting for a call back from the White House. Otherwise, the bravest member of Congress is ready to lead fellow Democrats into a massive battle on the House floor against a Democratic leadership intent on using tax dollars to fund the taking of unborn lives.
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