Catholic bishops press for bill’s abortion curbs
WASHINGTON - The call came in from Rome, just as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants were scrambling to round up scarce votes to pass their sweeping health overhaul.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was on the line for Pelosi, calling to discuss adding strict abortion restrictions to the House bill.
It was just one element of an intensive lobbying effort orchestrated by the nation’s Catholic bishops, who have emerged as a formidable force in the health care negotiations. They used their clout with millions of Catholics and worked behind the scenes in Congress to make sure the abortion curbs were included in the legislation - and are now pressing to keep them there.
They do not spend a dime on what is legally defined as lobbying, but lawmakers and insiders recognize that the bishops’ voices matter - and they move votes. Representatives for the bishops were in Pelosi’s Capitol suite negotiating with top officials for three hours last Friday evening as they reached final terms of the agreement.
Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley personally appealed to President Obama about the issue near the church altar at the late August funeral for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Bishops quietly called their congressmen and senators to weigh in.
“The Catholic Church used their power - their clout, if you will - to influence this issue. They had to. It’s a basic teaching of the religion,’’ said Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is the architect of the health measure’s restrictions.
The House bill bars a new government-run insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother being in danger, and prohibits any health plan that receives federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage. If women wanted to buy abortion coverage through such plans, they’d have to buy it separately.
The outcome has put Obama and Democratic leaders - already struggling for consensus on the complex and politically tricky health measure - in a tough spot. Democratic abortion foes in the Senate vow they won’t support health legislation that omits the strict restrictions approved by the House.