One of Washington's most enduring partnerships appears headed for a nasty breakup. Republicans and Democrats who oppose abortion have found themselves on opposite sides of a major issue — the health care overhaul legislation that President Obama signed Tuesday. And the war of words has gotten increasingly ugly.
For nearly as long as abortion has been legal, Democratic and Republican opponents of abortion rights have worked together. In fact, the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, the group that promotes the anti-abortion point of view among lawmakers, has always had two leaders — one Democrat and one Republican.
But that alliance was blasted apart Sunday, when a group of anti-abortion Democrats, led by Pro-Life Caucus co-chairman Bart Stupak of Michigan, negotiated a deal with Obama to support the version of the health care bill that passed the Senate in December. In exchange for their vote, Obama promised to issue an executive order ensuring that no federal funds would be used to pay for elective abortions under the new law. Obama signed that order Wednesday.
"With the final bill, plus the executive order, make no doubt about it, there will be no public funds for abortion," Stupak said at a news conference Sunday afternoon.
But that was far from how Stupak's caucus co-chairman, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), saw things.
"We are looking at legislation that contains within it the largest expansion of publicly funded abortion in history," Smith said at a Republican news conference early Sunday evening.
And so it went. Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other.
"What we're doing today is certainly the most pro-life vote, I believe, in my 34 years in Congress that I've seen," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV).
Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur said she thought the bill could actually reduce the number of abortions.
"In those communities that have provided maternal care and health care for all children, we find that the abortion rate goes down significantly," she said.
Republicans were just as adamant that their Democratic friends were wrong.
"If there is taxpayer funding of abortion, there will be 30 percent more abortions," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
And they were appalled that any abortion foe would trust Obama on the issue.
"This puts the fate of the unborn in the hands of the most pro-abortion president in history," said Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA).
Sunday evening on the floor, things got downright nasty when Republicans tried to offer anti-abortion language as an amendment to the so-called health care "fix it" bill. Stupak got up to oppose it.
"The motion to recommit does not promote life. It is the Democrats who have stood up," he said before he was interrupted by hoots and jeers.
One member, later identified as Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), shouted "baby killer," though he later said he was talking about the bill in general, not Stupak specifically.
A Partisan Divide
Still, political scientist John Green of the University of Akron said he was stunned by the divide he saw develop Sunday.
"I was sitting there with my jaw dropping, watching this debate unfold between people who had been pretty strong allies for quite some time," said Green, who has studied the politics of abortion for years.
But in other ways, Green said, he is not that surprised, given the overall partisan tone that has taken hold in Washington.
"Particularly for elected officials, partisanship may ultimately count more than issues when push comes to shove," he said.
But Green noted that there was a religious split first that made the political split possible within the anti-abortion community. While Catholic bishops continued to oppose the health bill on anti-abortion grounds, Catholic nuns and hospitals said they believed the new law does, in fact, prohibit abortion funding.
"I think that made a big difference," Green said, "because that gave pro-life Democrats some cover to compromise on the bill."
In the end, Green said, the debate boiled down to a simple matter of trust. Democrats believe that Obama will keep his word to prevent federal abortion funding; Republicans don't.
And there are indications that the fight could get beyond just words. Over the past 36 hours there have been increasing reports of threats made against lawmakers in the wake of the health bill votes. Many of those threats have been directed against Stupak and his group of anti-abortion Democrats who voted for the bill.