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Capuano shifts on health overhaul

Says he won’t vote for abortion curb

CLARIFYING HIS POSITION 'I chose to keep the health care debate alive,' Michael Capuano said of his vote in favor of the bill. CLARIFYING HIS POSITION
"I chose to keep the health care debate alive," Michael Capuano said of his vote in favor of the bill.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 11, 2009

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US Representative Michael E. Capuano, in a significant departure from his forceful rhetoric a day earlier, said yesterday that he would vote against a final health care bill if it includes a provision restricting federal funding for abortion.

Capuano voted for the House bill Saturday, then blasted Senate race rival Martha Coakley on Monday for saying that the abortion provision was so unpalatable that it was worth sinking the overall package.

But yesterday the Somerville Democrat said that his vote over the weekend was merely to advance the legislation so it could be amended later, not an indication of his final political judgment.

“If the bill comes back the same way as it left the House, I would vote against it,’’ Capuano said in an interview. “I am a prochoice person, and I do believe this is [necessary] to provide health care for everyone.’’

Capuano’s shift was stark, first arguing that Coakley was foolish to oppose a bill because she did not like one piece of it, then aligning his policy view with hers while accusing her of failing to grasp congressional procedure.

It was an unexpected development, given the language he used Monday to hammer Coakley for saying she opposed the bill over the abortion restrictions, whose inclusion was the product of a deal liberal House members made to win narrow passage of the overall package. He went so far as to call Coakley’s comments “manna from heaven’’ for his campaign, with her willingness to torpedo a major health care overhaul over one provision.

Yesterday, Coakley’s campaign tried to make the most of Capuano’s change of course, which essentially means the two candidates would vote the same way in the Senate.

“We are heartened to see that Congressman Capuano has reversed his position to follow Martha Coakley’s lead and no longer will vote for health care legislation that further restricts a woman’s right to choose,’’ a campaign spokesman, Corey Welford, said in a statement.

Another candidate in the Dec. 8 primary, Stephen Pagliuca, criticized both Capuano and Coakley, calling their positions alarming and saying the successor to Edward M. Kennedy should vote for the health care overhaul even if it must mean limiting insurance coverage of abortions. The fourth Democrat in the race, Alan Khazei, said Monday he would vote for the legislation if the abortion provision were included, though he dodged the question in a TV interview yesterday.

“If the choice is between providing health care to over 30 million people without federal coverage for abortion or to leave them with no coverage at all, I could not, in good conscience make the choice to leave them out in the cold,’’ Pagliuca said in a statement. “Senator Kennedy spent 40 years fighting for this opportunity, and today it appears that two candidates for his seat are risking the greatest opportunity we have had in a generation to make health care reform a reality.’’

The exchanges capped a bizarre day, in which both Capuano and Coakley seized on the health care issue to jolt their campaigns. Coakley’s campaign manager sent an e-mail to supporters titled “A Defining Moment,’’ articulating her stance and asking for contributions. Later in the day, Capuano’s campaign manager sent a message titled, “Either You Do or You Don’t,’’ taking Coakley to task again for her position and detailing Capuano’s reasons for supporting the House legislation.

Coakley campaign aides, believing her strong position on health care has helped her shed her cautious image, said that they were fielding calls of support from women across the country and that they had one of the best online fund-raising days to date.

The back-and-forth puts the Senate race smack in the middle of an evolving debate in Washington over the fate of the health care bill, with abortion rights groups demanding that the legislation be changed and conservative Democrats, whose votes are critical, suggesting they will not vote for the bill if it is. Dozens of liberal House members have written to Democratic leaders saying they will vote against a final bill if it contains the abortion provision; Capuano said yesterday that he was not sure whether he will sign.

At issue is the so-called Stupak-Pitts amendment, which would prohibit abortions in many cases from being covered in any plan subsidized by the federal government.

The bill heads to the Senate, and it is conceivable that the winner of the Jan. 19 special election will be in place by the time senators cast their final votes.

On Monday, Capuano pulled few punches in attacking Coakley for opposing the bill because of the abortion restrictions, though his spokeswoman declined to say that evening whether he himself would support the final package if the restrictions remained.

“I have never once, or almost never, voted on a major piece of legislation that was all good or all bad,’’ Capuano told supporters at a rally on Monday night. “Do you think that when they voted on Medicare that it was a perfect bill? Or Social Security? Or the Civil Rights Act? Every one of those bills was major progress with flaws in the bill.’’

Yesterday, it was a far different argument: Coakley, he said, failed to understand that even Democrats who support abortion rights had to approve the bill in the House to advance it.

“That is a significant, dramatic, and naive thinking of how Congress works,’’ Capuano said. “If she had it her way, the debate about health care reform would be dead for the session and probably dead for another 10 years.’’

“She would have killed the health care debate,’’ he added. “That’s the distinction. And I chose to keep the health care debate alive.’’

Yesterday, Capuano also challenged Coakley to debate health care “any time, any way, and in front of any group of your choosing.’’ He then chastised her for criticizing the same bill he now says he is willing to vote against.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.