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Democrats on the defensive as abortion foes ask if party tolerates their views

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) answers questions during her weekly news conference at the Capitol on June 5.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) answers questions during her weekly news conference at the Capitol on June 5. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Just two years ago then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) deflected questions about ideological litmus tests on abortion rights, suggesting Democrats offered a big tent welcoming people of all creeds.

“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family,” Pelosi, who is now House speaker, told The Washington Post in May 2017.

Her politically powerful family included many opponents of abortion through their religious beliefs, she said. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”

Now, Pelosi finds herself at the center of a growing debate about abortion rights, from a House race in Chicago to the 2020 presidential primary campaign. Next up is an effort to amend the spending bill that funds the Department of Health and Human Services that contains the very antiabortion language that prompted former vice president Joe Biden to renounce more than four decades of beliefs on access to abortion.

The Post’s Robert Barnes analyzes how states are passing laws restricting abortion rights and testing how the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority decides. (Video: Luis Velarde, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

It’s left some Democrats who oppose abortion rights, including Catholics in critically important Midwestern battlegrounds, feeling that party leaders are happy to have their support — as long as they keep quiet about their anti-choice views.

“We’ve become so intolerant,” former congressman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said in an interview Friday. “They’ll take our money, but they can’t come to our events or help us out in our campaigns.”

Democrats did not expect to be on the defensive on this issue, certainly not after a spring filled with several conservative states approving controversial, Republican-led laws that imposed almost a complete ban on abortion. In some cases the new state laws did not even include exceptions for the health of the mother or for victims of rape or incest, drawing rebukes from President Trump and senior GOP congressional leaders.

When abortion rights activists pushed back, they ended up politically targeting Democrats, not just conservative Republicans who supported those extreme positions.

First, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, backed out of headlining a fundraiser for Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), whose opposition to abortion rights almost cost him his seat last year and is headed for a rematch in next year’s Democratic primary. Bustos won the leadership race for DCCC chairwoman in part by promising to defend incumbents from primary challenges, but she retreated from her public support of Lipinski amid sharp criticism from liberal activists.

This past week Biden faced similar political heat after aides reiterated his long-standing support for the more than 40-year-old Hyde Amendment. Named for the late congressman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the legislation prohibited federal funds from going to doctors performing abortions or any other promotion of the procedure.

Biden, a Catholic who originally opposed abortion rights in the early 1970s, long supported the Hyde language, but Thursday night he cited the conservative assault on Roe v. Wade at the state level to now oppose the amendment.

Facing down liberal critics, Rep. Cheri Bustos pledges to keep Democrats’ tent big

The reversal won praise from abortion rights supporters, including Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, who called the Hyde Amendment “discriminatory” against poor women trying to access abortions.

Now some Democrats are trying to force a vote to strike the Hyde restrictions from the bill funding HHS, set to hit the House floor in the coming days. If they get a vote, it might pass because there are so few Democrats like Lipinski left in Congress.

Stupak, who now lobbies on health-care issues, thought the attacks against Biden’s original position were “almost vengeful” in a manner that seemed more like Republican politics of the last decade.

“It just seems like we’ve lost a sense of civility,” he said.

The reality is almost every Democrat in Congress has voted for legislation containing Hyde Amendment language, and according to research by The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, that includes every Democrat running for president who is currently in Congress or previously served on Capitol Hill.

That’s because the Hyde Amendment has been included in health-care legislation for decades. The mix of moderate Democrats and centrist Republicans kept that balance in support of abortion rights as long as the federal government did not play a role.

Public views on abortion are much more complex than either of the ideological wings would let on — just 18 percent of voters believe abortion should be available at any point during a pregnancy, while 9 percent support outlawing all abortions, according to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll released Friday.

Yet those are the two positions now promoted, respectively, by Planned Parenthood and leading antiabortion groups.

Stupak found himself wrapped in an intense legislative battle over the Hyde Amendment back in 2009, when Pelosi tried to lock down enough votes to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act.

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Initial ACA drafts did not spell out that the Hyde Amendment should apply to the new law, and Stupak corralled dozens of Democrats to push for it, denying Pelosi enough votes to start the debate.

“She can count,” he recalled.

Negotiations ensued, including one handshake deal that later fell apart after a rebellion from the caucus’s liberal wing who wanted to block the Hyde language.

On the eve of the first ACA vote, November 2009, Stupak sat in a hearing of the Rules Committee past midnight to ensure his amendment was made in order. The next day 64 Democrats joined with 176 Republicans to support the reaffirmation of the Hyde language.

The coalition shifted on the final vote, with liberal Democrats voting for the overall bill despite Stupak’s victory on abortion restrictions. In March 2010, as the final compromise ACA faced a vote, Republicans tried to amend the bill with abortion language and Stupak spoke out against the GOP effort, saying his version was sufficient.

“Baby killer!” one Republican yelled at Stupak as he spoke.

It was the sort of ugly attack Stupak, an antiabortion Catholic, had come to expect from Republicans.

These days, he fears that Democrats have drifted into the same level of vitriol on the abortion issue, adopting the most caustic language to attack those with different views.

“It’s not the same party anymore,” Stupak said. “You’re driving people away.”

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