Health Care Clincher: The Importance of Being Stupak

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Left; Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP: Harry Hamburg / AP

President Barack Obama and Representative Bart Stupak (D., Mich.)

Until Sunday, March 21, few out of Michigan's rugged 1st Congressional District, which stretches for 1,600 miles (2,575 km) along the Great Lakes, had ever heard of Bart Stupak. But as the clock ran out on health care reform, all eyes were on the Democratic Congressman. "How does it feel to keep the whole world waiting?" a reporter joked to laughter as Stupak entered a packed television studio on the third floor of the House of Representatives, hours before the expected vote on health care reform, to announce his decision. Flanked by six other pro-life Dems, Stupak finally brought an end to the suspense: he and his group would vote for health care reform, throwing Democrats over the 216 threshold of votes needed to pass the bill.

The victory was not easily wrought. This was Stupak's third scheduled press conference in two days; the other two were abruptly canceled. On Sunday morning Democratic leadership sources leaked to reporters that there was a deal, rumors Stupak quickly quashed, saying he was still looking at the language of an Executive Order negotiated with White House Counsel Bob Bauer. It was not till 4 p.m. that he spoke to the press about the deal. "In the end, like the [Catholic] bishops, I wish that we could have had statutory language," Stupak said. "But we only have 44 votes in the Senate and I recognize that we just couldn't get something through. The Executive Order is better than nothing and I have every assurance it will stand." After the bill passed, Republicans tried to challenge it by bringing up Stupak's own arguments against it. Democrats responded dramatically by bringing up Stupak himself to defend the passage of the law. At one point, as he argued for the new health care legislation, a member of the House shouted out, "Baby killer."

Critics of the deal say that an Executive Order can be rescinded at any time at the pleasure of the President or by an act of Congress. Stupak, though, said that the leaders were close to reaching 216 without him and he felt this was the best deal his group could get. "I will continue in the future to push for statutory language," he said, adding that he has been assured by the White House and Democratic leaders that they will not challenge the order.

Abortion has been one of Stupak's chief issues in public office: he is a leader of the group Democrats for Life. A former Eagle Scout, Stupak's Catholic faith has always been important to him. His religiosity only deepened after his son, Bart Jr., committed suicide in May 2000, which the family blamed on Accutane, an acne medication. Until recently he lived in the infamous C Street House, a group lodging for young and upcoming religious conservative members of the House and Senators run by a Christian organization (other alums include Larry Craig, John Ensign and Mark Sanford).

Stupak nearly brought down the House version on the bill last November when he objected to the abortion language in the legislation. At the last minute, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to an amendment authored by Stupak that barred any federal funds from subsidizing abortion on the health care exchange that is expected to be set up in 2014 to provide insurance to upwards of 31 million uninsured Americans. Prochoice groups were outraged, accusing Stupak of moving beyond current law, and the amendment was stripped out in the Senate and replaced with softer language that Stupak and his group felt did not go far enough. Sunday's last-minute Executive Order, expected to be signed by President Obama immediately following passage of the bill, was the compromise that allowed Stupak and his group to vote for final passage of health care reform.

House Democratic sources credited Representative John Dingell, the longest serving member in the history of Congress and dean of the Michigan delegation, for bringing Stupak around. Stupak, a Dingell protégé, was in tears when Dingell lost his House Energy and Commerce gavel to Henry Waxman last year — the committee is the only one Stupak has served on since his election to Congress in 1992. Health care reform has been Dingell's top priority during his 54 years in office and, in fact, the House bill was named for him. "Mr. Dingell had a piece of me yesterday for quite some time," Stupak told reporters Sunday to laughter. "John Dingell is one of my nearest, dearest, closest friends. I'm glad for John Dingell to have this day."