It sounded like a meeting of natural allies, a chance for leaders of the National Right to Life Committee to lobby House Democrats who oppose abortion about a key issue on their agenda. But it quickly got as heated as a rally at a clinic.
"I don't care if you blacklist me; I'm never talking to National Right to Life again," fumed Rep. Marion Berry (Ark.), storming out of the room. Rep. Mike McIntyre (N.C.) warned the lobbyists they were harping on the wrong issue: "You're shooting yourselves in the foot!" Rep. Tony P. Hall (Ohio), a devout Christian who believes with all his heart that life begins at conception, summed up the prevailing mood: "To hell with you all!"
Abortion issues are always volatile, but the subject of the spat on Capitol Hill that February day was not partial-birth abortion, public financing of abortion or anything else directly involving abortion. It was campaign finance reform.
The National Right to Life Committee has made the defeat of efforts to curb money's influence on politics one of its top priorities, and its unlikely crusade has caused deep rifts in the antiabortion movement. At the same time, the committee has transformed the legal and political landscape for campaign reform, and it will play a huge behind-the-scenes role today when the House takes up the sweeping Shays-Meehan bill to overhaul the financing of elections.
NRLC officials, who control a $12 million lobbying budget as well as a political action committee that spent more than $2 million in the 1996 election cycle, believe the bill's restrictions on "issue advocacy" would unconstitutionally limit their First Amendment right to free political speech, crippling their ability to advocate for the unborn. So they have played hardball, threatening to punish even fervent antiabortion legislators who support Shays-Meehan, warning that its influential "abortion scorecards" will include this vote no matter what. They have made it clear that they see no room for compromise on the issue; at the February meeting, Berry complained, they were "dictatorial and rude."
Meanwhile, NRLC general counsel James Bopp Jr. has emerged as the nation's leading litigator against campaign restrictions; he has won lawsuits on First Amendment grounds striking down five federal regulations and about 30 state laws, some strikingly similar to provisions in Shays-Meehan.
"We think these restrictions would put us out of business," Bopp said in an interview last week before traveling to Alabama to file another suit. "I'd say that for a member of Congress, voting against us on Shays-Meehan is even worse than opposing us on any one piece of abortion legislation. If we're out of business, we can't do anything to help our cause."
For years, nonpartisan groups such as NRLC have spent millions of dollars on advertisements praising or blasting politicians over particular issues without specifically urging voters to support or oppose them at the polls; Shays-Meehan would reclassify many of those ads as campaign contributions, subject to much stricter spending limits. So groups all over the political spectrum have joined NRLC in its fight for the status quo, including the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association on the right, and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence on the left.
But the National Right to Life Committee has been at the forefront of the battle, and many of its past supporters in the antiabortion movement say its intense detour into campaign finance say it is needlessly dividing an already fragile coalition. NRLC is supposed to be a single-issue lobby, with 50 state affiliates and 3,000 local affiliates dedicated to the cause of deterring abortion; some activists and politicians say it has lost credibility by equating votes to restructure an electoral process with attacks on innocent fetuses.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an antiabortion Republican who is coauthor of the Senate campaign reform bill, sent a letter to Catholic bishops decrying the "inaccurate, indeed dishonest, arguments" of the NRLC. Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.) and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) wrote a letter signed by 13 other antiabortion House members -- not all of them supporters of campaign reform -- complaining that the committee is "confusing a commitment to protecting the unborn with extraneous issues that do not involve the sanctity of life." An angry Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) sent a letter to other conservative Democrats accusing NRLC of "obvious attempts to target and intimidate those of us who believe our campaign system is in need of an overhaul."
The committee has fielded criticism from other antiabortion groups as well, from the Catholic Alliance and the Coalition of Pro-Life Democrats to American Right to Life, an organization that was formed as an alternative to NRLC last year and that is already involved in a nasty legal battle with the committee over its use of the phrase "Right to Life."
Just last month, representatives of several conservative religious groups -- including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Eagle Forum -- met at the Traditional Values Coalition to plan a reception to give awards to supportive members of Congress. But the meeting quickly deteriorated into a noisy battle pitting an NRLC staffer against just about everyone else, after she argued that anyone who supported campaign reform was an enemy of the antiabortion movement. The meeting eventually broke up without any agreement on awards; instead, the frustrated attendees decided merely to give some members antiabortion pins with baby feet.
"They've created huge dissension in the pro-life ranks," said Joe Barrett, a board member of the Coalition of Pro-Life Democrats. "There's just one agenda we all agree on: Stop the damn killing. By bringing in these other issues, they're causing a real revolt."
Democrats have been particularly upset with the committee, in part because most campaign overhaul supporters are Democrats, and in part because the committee has forged increasingly close ties to the Republican Party. Most congressional opponents of abortion are Republicans, but especially among urban Catholics and Hispanics, many antiabortion voters are Democrats.
Bopp, Democratic critics point out, is a longtime GOP activist in Indiana, as well as the counsel to the Republican Majority Issues Campaign, a group that has pledged to raise $25 million to spend on issue ads for the 2000 campaign. Three weeks before the 1996 election, NRLC received a $650,000 donation from the Republican National Committee. And its PAC has been overwhelmingly supportive of GOP candidates -- including a few with shaky antiabortion credentials -- as well as leadership PACs that help both Republicans who support abortion rights and those who don't.
To the critics, the most glaring example of the committee's Republican tilt -- as well as its excessive preoccupation with campaign reform -- was its decision to run radio ads last year blasting Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) despite his consistent antiabortion voting record. Stenholm's alleged sin was cosponsoring a campaign law even stricter than Shays-Meehan.
"If Mr. Stenholm gets his way, this ad will soon be against the law," the ads began.
"Against the law? Why?"
"Because I just mentioned the congressman's name."
Those ads prompted Rep. James A. Barcia (D-Mich.) to organize the February meeting that turned so ugly, and they are still a sore point for Democrats. "They're in the Republicans' hip pocket, no question about it," Hall said. "I believe God knew us before we were born. I believe we have a duty to protect the sanctity of life. But what does campaign reform have to do with abortion?"
Everything, NRLC officials say. The best-known provision of Shays-Meehan would ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties. But they are far more upset about measures that would make it impossible for non-campaign issue ads to mention specific candidates within 60 days of an election, and far more difficult during the rest of the year. They say that amounts to politicians deciding what can be said about them and when it can be said, undermining the Constitution's broad protections for political discourse.
Of course, those measures would have a similar effect on abortion rights advocates; in Michigan, Planned Parenthood and NRLC actually filed separate (and equally successful) challenges to the same campaign law. But committee officials argue that because of what they view as abortion-rights media bias, restrictions on ads would especially harm antiabortion groups.
"We need to take our message directly to the people. Otherwise, the pro-life message is going to be distorted," said Douglas Johnson, the committee's legislative director.
So for now, the committee is taking its message to Congress. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) estimates that NRLC pressure will cost his Shays-Meehan bill at least 10 votes in the House from antiabortion lawmakers fearful of getting "scored down." Rep. Barcia admits that he declined to sign a petition pushing for an early vote on the bill in part to maintain a 100 percent antiabortion rating, and he knows several colleagues who did as well.
"A lot of us are struggling with this issue," said Barcia, co-chairman of the Democratic Pro-Life Caucus. "That 100 percent score means something in our districts."
For all its political muscle, though, the committee's ultimate power to block new limits may lie in the legal realm. Even some reformers concede that if a bill does make it through Congress -- the issue stalled in the Senate last year -- Bopp could cause them real problems in court. In West Virginia, Michigan and Florida, he has persuaded courts to overturn measures resembling Shays-Meehan's proposed 60-day ban on mentioning candidates' names. In North Carolina, Iowa and Kansas, he persuaded judges that proposed limits on issue ads that sounded like campaign ads were unconstitutionally vague; he warns that Shays-Meehan repeats the error.
"Those First Amendment questions are the most controversial part of the bill, and the right-to-life people have played a huge role in raising them," said Common Cause executive vice president Don Simon. "It's kind of startling, really. Sometimes it seems like they care more about campaign reform than they care about abortion."