Pressuring Anti-Abortion Democrats

by Jonathan Chait | March 19, 2010

The politics of an abortion deal are tricky. Here's how it would work. Pro-life Democrats would vote for health care reform, and then they'd take a subsequent vote sometime later this year to codify the Henry Hyde language ensuring that federal money does not subsidize abortion.

Republicans, naturally, want to make that very difficult. So they're putting out word that they would never vote for such a measure. I have two points to make. First of all, once the health care bill has passed, what incentive do they have to vote against abortion restrictions? They have an incentive to say so now, to spook anti-abortion Democrats into voting no, but I fail to see their incentive two months from now should the bill become law.

Second, let's suppose they follow up with this threat: anti-abortion Republicans join with pro-choice Dems to vote down the abortion restrictions. This would presuppose that anti-abortion Republicans care more about maximizing political discomfort for anti-abortion Democrats than in actually minimizing abortion.

This may indeed be the case. Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review argues that anti-abortion Democrats are going to lose their label if they vote for health care reform:

It is the bulk of pro-lifers—and in particular the ones most active on the issue—who define that label for political purposes. Who are these people more likely to side with and trust in this dispute? The National Right to Life Committee, or Commonweal? The Catholic bishops—most of whom support national health insurance—or the Catholic Health Association? The Democrats who are bucking their party, or the ones who are going along with it? Laura Ingraham or Ruth Marcus?
This vote is career-defining, and as NR editorialized the other day, any politician who supports this bill is forfeiting the pro-life label.

Maybe no such thing would happen to anti-abortion Republicans who vote down the Hyde language in order to make life hard for Democrats. To me that would demonstrate that the bulk of the anti-abortion movement is fundamentally acting as an arm of the Republican Party. They certainly have sensible political grounds to do so. But the notion that these groups should be according deference as independent moral arbiters of the cause by anti-abortion voters seems pretty specious. For an anti-abortion Democrat to lose the support of the national Right to Life Committee because Republicans killed an anti-abortion measure just means that the Committee wants to help Republicans.

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