First-term Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper is a pro-life Democrat. Actually, she calls herself a "whole life" Democrat.
"I am against the death penalty; am for health care reform; care whether people live in poverty or not -- all of these things are life issues and the majority of them fit right into the Democratic platform," she said. "The one that doesn't is the issue of abortion."
It is that issue -- and the question of what constitutes taxpayer support for abortion -- that sits at the heart of the Democratic Party's latest internal battle in its efforts to cobble together a majority to pass health care reform.
Related: Abortion Rights Backers Threaten Primaries, 'No' Votes on Health
For Dahlkemper, the issue is about more than politics. "I was in college," she explained as she described an unplanned pregnancy in her early 20s. "I can say this as someone who has actually been in the situation. . . . I am a woman and I do understand." The son she gave birth to in college is 30 years old now.
Her victory as a pro-life Democrat last year, along with others since 2006, helped to expand the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate but also presented leaders with an uncomfortable truth -- that with larger numbers came a far greater diversity of positions on even their most cherished issues, including abortion rights. (It should be noted that the term "pro-life" applies to a whole continuum of positions and strategies, and that not everyone who describes himself that way seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade
Despite her role as a minority opinion in the majority party, the congresswoman said, "I had a lot of support from the DCCC and members when I ran. And I was never shy about saying I was a pro-life Democrat."
Nor has she shied away from acting like one since joining Congress. Leading up to Saturday's final House vote, Dahlkemper joined fellow Democrat Rep. Bart Stupak to co-sponsor an amendment preventing direct or indirect federal funding for abortion in the health insurance exchange to be created by the health care reform bill. The Stupak amendment passed easily, 240 to 192, with 64 Democrats
voting for it. The Democratic votes came from a coalition including some who favor abortion rights but not federal funding for the procedure.
Dahlkemper called the floor debate between Democrats "emotional" but "respectful," and gave Nancy Pelosi credit for making it possible. "It never would have come to the floor if it wasn't for the speaker," she said.
Pelosi's decision to allow for an up-or-down vote, however reluctant it may have been, was in keeping with the party's significantly more pragmatic approach to the issue in recent years. After a rapid decline in the number of conservative Democrats in Congress during the 1980s and 1990s, caused primarily by the realignment of conservative Southern Democrats to the Republican party, a new recruiting strategy began after 2004 and brought in more and different Democrats to the caucus, including Dahlkemper, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) and Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is also the chairman of the DNC.
The National Right to Life Committee scores members of Congress on votes it considers essential to a pro-life agenda and lobbied in favor of the amendment from Stupak, who had a 71 percent rating for the last Congress. "I think it's true that in recent years the Democratic campaign apparatus has been more willing to support pro-life candidates than it had been in many years, where they match their districts," said Douglas Johnson, the committee's legislative director. "It came when the Democrats lost the House in 1994 and did some soul-searching and said, 'We're doing some things wrong here.' "
Saturday's passage of the Stupak amendment did not surprise Johnson, who said recent polling
shows a majority of Americans opposes federal funding for abortion, but the amendment's approval seemed to stun Democrats on the other side of the issue and send pro-choice forces scrambling into action by the next morning.
Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, sent out an urgent alert to members. "Yesterday was brutal," she wrote. "While there are some who are satisfied with the health care reform bill that passed in the House of Representatives late Saturday night, I am not one of them." She described the Stupak amendment as a "ban on abortion" and urged members to mobilize for the fight that lies ahead in the Senate, where a number of moderate Democrats are waiting with 40 Republicans to take it up.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, himself pro-life, has not revealed the specifics of the bill that he negotiated with the White House and his Senate committee chairmen, but his spokesman, Jim Manley, indicated Monday that the abortion language has not been settled. "We are still working on our bill, and have lots of loose ends to tie up. This is one of them," he said of the abortion language. "We will be talking to our caucus about this and other issues in the days ahead as we work on bringing a bill to the Senate floor."
Activists familiar with the issue expect amendments on federal funding of abortion to be a part of the Senate debate. Sen. Orrin Hatch offered two amendments during his committee's mark-ups of health care reform, and senators, including Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska (pictured), have already spoken out on the issue. Nelson's spokesman described the senator Monday as "strongly pro-life" and said it would be "highly unlikely he would support a bill that doesn't clearly prohibit federal dollars from going to abortion."
Nelson and his fellow moderates, including Casey, Mark Pryor (D-Ark), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), are sure to be bombarded by phone calls and e-mails from activists and advocates on both sides of the issue. In addition to Planned Parenthood's call for members to contact the White House, Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, "Our ultimate goal is to defeat the Stupak-Pitts abortion ban."
Where President Obama stands on the Stupak amendment is not entirely clear. Although he said in his speech to a joint session of Congress in September that no federal funding would go toward paying for abortions, he told ABC's Jake Tapper Tuesday morning, "There needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we're not changing the status quo" with the Stupak amendment.
Kristin Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America
, said the overall increase in the number of pro-life Democrats in the House and Senate is encouraging, but, "This fight on abortion was not productive. We should figure out how to have this conversation within our own party."
The Senate's health care bill, including abortion-related amendments, has not yet been finalized.