One of the House's most pro-life and politically vulnerable Democrats announced Tuesday that he had no concerns about the Senate health care bill's safeguards against abortion financing and sent an important signal that he may back the final measure.
The announcement by Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, a social justice Catholic whose 2008 victory was stunning given his district's conservative and Republican base, is an important lift for Democratic leaders as they struggle to patch together 216 votes and avoid such controversial parliamentary maneuvers as the "deem and pass" option now under consideration.
But Perriello's declaration that the Senate bill's protections against taxpayer financing of abortion are as strong as those in the House bill (which he supported) may be even more consequential. That's because a dispute over abortion financing in the Senate bill -- which the House is supposed to take up later this week -- has become pivotal to the bill's chances of success.
"I have plenty of serious problems with the Senate bill and, until I see the final language, I cannot take a position on final passage," Perriello said in his statement. "But the existing language on abortion in the current Senate bill meets the pledge I made to ensure no federal funding for abortion in this health care bill."
Many abortion opponents, led by the nation's Catholic bishops, firmly oppose the Senate bill because they say it will open the door to widespread federal financing of abortion. The hierarchy's leadership has continued to stake that claim, as three top bishops did again in a statement published in The Washington Post
The hierarchy, like many Catholic groups, has made affordable, universal health care a priority for decades. Still, a dozen or so pro-life Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, whose name is on an abortion financing amendment in the House bill that the bishops prefer, say they are not going to budge without an all-clear from the bishops.
But a growing number of Catholic leaders and organizations are backing away from the bishops' hard line against the reform bill, citing research, which Politics Daily has been reporting
in recent days, showing that the bishops' calculations about financing provisions in the Senate bill seem to be mistaken or greatly overstated.
The influential Catholic Health Association on Saturday endorsed
the Senate bill and said it not only bars abortion financing but would also reduce abortions because of its provisions supporting pregnant women and adoption.
Last week, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), a pro-life Catholic who had been with Stupak on this issue, indicated he would support health care reform as it stands, and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, also a pro-life Catholic, said he was satisfied with the Senate bill's language on abortion.
Perriello has earned wide respect for the way his Catholic faith informs his social justice and pro-life stands, and his clear explanation of his reasons for backing the Senate bill's abortion provisions may provide further cover, or incentive, to like-minded representatives.
"As health care experts and pro-life leaders agree, the abortion language in the Senate bill upholds the Hyde Amendment standard," Perriello said, referring to the Hyde Amendment that for 35 years has barred taxpayer money from paying for abortions under Medicaid. "The Senate health care bill prevents federal taxpayer dollars from funding abortions, as the Catholic Hospital Association and legal experts have recently stated and as my own research has confirmed."
"Furthermore, several key yet unadvertised provisions of the bill are likely to reduce the number of abortions in this country in ways that move beyond politics toward a real impact on the culture of life in our country, such as those that provide $250 million for programs to support vulnerable pregnant women and increase the adoption tax credit, also making it refundable, so that lower income families can access it fully."
Perriello is walking a fine line since he was always considered one of the most vulnerable Demcrats in this fall's elections. Voting for health care reform is not likely to help him, but if he is seen as standing by his pro-life convictions he may earn the admiration -- if not votes -- of some of his constituents.