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GOP targets antiabortion Democrats who backed health-care overhaul

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010; A03

CINCINNATI -- Rep. Steve Driehaus (D) was among a half-dozen holdouts who voted for the health-care overhaul only after being assured that taxpayer money would not be used to pay for abortions.

Three months after that decision, many of his constituents still aren't convinced: They think lawmakers have left the door open for federal funds to be used for the procedure. And their suspicions are being fanned by Republicans who see Driehaus's southwestern Ohio district as a prime pick-up opportunity in the November midterm elections.

"I just think they're going to slide it in there somewhere," said Marcy Jackson, 33, taking a break in the shade during the St. John the Baptist Catholic parish festival in Harrison, a conservative town in the district. A few tables away, retiree Don Mercer, 56, said: "It's another one of those tricky politician things."

The debate over health care has died down, but suspicion and confusion over the new law persist. A June poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation found that nearly 42 percent of Americans are "confused" about it. Now conservative groups are hoping to sway voters trying to figure out what the dramatic changes will mean.

The law is complex. But voters say the confusion also stems from the obvious wheeling and dealing that led to its narrow passage, which critics say opened their eyes to potential loopholes in its hundreds of pages, including on the issue of abortion.

Antiabortion groups are targeting Democratic lawmakers who they say betrayed their pro-life views. The Susan B. Anthony List has run radio ads calling Driehaus's vote "the ultimate betrayal." National Right to Life, which was founded in southwest Ohio, plans to do the same.

A national GOP Web site identified 15 "Stupak's Sellouts," named after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who served as the leader of antiabortion Democrats who ultimately backed the bill. In a recent e-mail to reporters, the National Republican Congressional Committee said Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) "betrayed women and unborn children with her vote in favor of a pro-abortion health care bill."

Driehaus said his vote on health care was an affirmation, not a repudiation, of his anti-abortion views. He argues that the attacks have been motivated more by partisan politics than by concerns about abortion.

"It's a complicated subject, and there's been a lot of misinformation from the other side," Driehaus said. "They're playing to fear, and that's a powerful emotion. But the facts are that not a single abortion will be paid for using federal funds under this law, and I plan to be out there making sure people have the facts."

He and other Democratic lawmakers backed the measure only after President Obama promised to sign an executive order forbidding the use of federal funds for abortions under the new law, except in cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother.

Opponents say it is a weak protection because Obama or another president could overturn it. Moreover, they say, people who qualify for federal subsidies under the new law to help buy health insurance might use that money for abortion coverage.

"There are an awful lot of pro-life people in this district who don't feel that over time it will prevent federal funding of abortions," Steve Chabot, a former GOP congressman who will face Driehaus in the fall, said of the new law.

That argument has raised the ire of abortion-rights supporters. They question whether insurers will even cover the procedure, since purchasers would be required to make a separate payment for abortion coverage.

Driehaus said he has full faith in Obama's executive order. But he acknowledges that his vote on health care has hurt him among some voters, including "moderate Catholics on the West Side [of Cincinnati] for whom abortion is important, as it is for me." He is back in his district virtually every weekend, meeting constituents at the popular weekend festivals and defending his record.

Driehaus unseated Chabot, a seven-term congressman, in 2008. Abortion could be a potent issue as Chabot seeks his old seat. The district is so known for its large number of antiabortion Catholics that after the health-care vote, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) remarked that Driehaus "may be a dead man. He can't go home to the West Side of Cincinnati."

Though views on abortion typically split along partisan lines, antiabortion swing voters make up 3 percent to 5 percent of the electorate in certain congressional districts, said Kristen Day, executive director of the antiabortion Democrats for Life of America.

Democratic groups have begun to fight back, notably Day's group, which is starting a political action committee to support 15 vulnerable anti-abortion Democrats including Driehaus. Called "Whole-Life Heroes," the PAC will try to convince voters that executive orders are rarely overturned and that the new law includes other aspects that should please abortion opponents.

Indeed, many Driehaus supporters said they were satisfied that the abortion question have been resolved. In Wyoming, another suburb of Cincinnati, Marilyn Palkovacs, 63, said she was not persuaded by the Republican attacks on his abortion stance.

"I think it's a red herring," said Palkovacs, an English professor and a Catholic. "But I'm sure the Republicans will raise it because it gets people all whipped up."

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