Democrat Wears Scorn as Medal in Abortion Fight
By JODI KANTOR
MENOMINEE, Mich. — Representative Bart Stupak often endures things others find unbearable. He crisscrosses a Congressional district so vast that some constituents live eight hours apart and so cold that the beer at his beloved football games sometimes freezes. Years ago, as a state trooper, he blew out his knee chasing a suspect, and he has since had so many operations that he now returns to work the same day, toting crutches and ice.
After his younger son committed suicide in 2000, using the congressman’s gun, Mr. Stupak soon resumed his predawn commute to Washington and his solid voting record with the National Rifle Association.
Now he is enduring more hatred than perhaps any other member of Congress, much of it from fellow Democrats. His name has become a slogan: “Stop Stupak!”
Scott Schloegel, his chief of staff, said wearily, “I can’t tell you how many New Yorkers have called me up and yelled at me about this Stupak guy.”
With final negotiations on a health care overhaul beginning this week, complaints about “the evil Stupak amendment,” as the congressman dryly called it over dinner here recently, are likely to grow even louder. The amendment prevents women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying abortion coverage — but critics assert it could cause women who buy their own insurance difficulty in obtaining coverage.
Mr. Stupak insists that the final bill include his terms, which he says merely reflect current law. If he prevails, he will have won an audacious, counterintuitive victory, forcing a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a measure that will be hailed as an anti-abortion triumph. If party members do not accept his terms — and many vow they will not — Mr. Stupak is prepared to block passage of the health care overhaul.
“It’s not the end of the world if it goes down,” he said over dinner.He did not sound downbeat about the prospect of being blamed for blocking the long-sought goal of President Obama and a chain of presidents and legislators before him. “Then you get the message,” he continued. “Fix the abortion language and bring the bill back.”
Mr. Stupak says his stand is a straightforward matter of Roman Catholic faith, but it also seems like the result of a long, slow burn. As dinner progressed, the congressman described years of feeling ignored, slighted or marginalized by his party for his anti-abortion views.
“We’re members without a party,” he said. “Democrats are mad at you, and Republicans don’t trust you.”
Mr. Stupak, 57, with a shock of thick gray hair and the stare of a law enforcement officer, is a Yooper, a resident of this state’s Upper Peninsula — snowy and hushed in winter, lush and tourist-filled in summer.
His father attended seminary before marrying and later sent his 10 children to Catholic school until tuition money ran out. As a state trooper, Mr. Stupak worked the highways but also trailed Ku Klux Klan members and drove home drunken state legislators. He attended law school at night, spent a term in the State Legislature, and then ran for Congress in 1992.
In the primary, he beat a candidate who supported abortion rights. But when he tried to hire Democratic political consultants for the general election, they refused — with expletives, he says — to work for a candidate with his views.
Mr. Stupak won anyway, and his freshman year in Washington, he requested but did not receive a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. “I had one or two members tell me I’d never get on because I’m right-to-life,” he said.
He cannot run for governor, he continued, because no one with his stands on guns and abortion can win in Michigan.
When Republicans ruled Washington, his fellow Democrats had to listen to anti-abortion views, he said. But with Democratic victories, abortion rights supporters felt their time had come.
“You’re never getting a right-to-life amendment,” Mr. Stupak said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, told him during health care negotiations. “We have pro-choice Democrats in the White House. We have majorities in the House and Senate. You’re done.”
In a phone interview, Ms. Slaughter said she did not recall the conversation.
But Democratic control of the House carries a paradox: because the party expanded by winning what had been Republican districts, it has more members who oppose federal financing for abortions and restrictions on guns. Mr. Stupak’s measure on abortion passed the House with the support of 64 Democrats.
“Before, when we talked about pro-life Democrats, you’d get a snicker and a laugh,” he said. “We were just always overlooked. We’re not overlooked anymore.”
Now the disagreement over abortion financing has become a game of chicken, with Mr. Stupak saying he and 10 or 11 others, whom he would not name, will vote against a final bill that does not meet his standards, and some backers of abortion rights threatening to do the same in what is expected to be a close vote.
Last fall, Mr. Stupak told constituents that even if his amendment failed, he would still vote yes on the overall health care legislation — he merely wanted to vote his conscience first. Now he says that statement applied only to the bill’s early version.
“You fight for a principle you’ve believed in your whole life, then you fold up the tent?” he said.
Some of Mr. Stupak’s colleagues on the other side of the abortion issue offer a different version of his lonely-man-of-principle story. He has hardly been an outcast within his own party, they say; two years after being elected, he joined the Energy and Commerce Committee, and now serves as chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Like Mr. Stupak, they say they have worked for months to avert precisely this sort of standoff. And they accuse him of being less of a brave holdout than an instrument of conservative Catholic and anti-abortion organizations.
“The National Right to Life Committee and the bishops saw this as a way to vastly increase restrictions on choice,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, who is a chief deputy House whip and co-chairwoman, with Ms. Slaughter, of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
Mr. Stupak was “not given very much negotiating room” by those organizations, Ms. DeGette said. Now “he’s gotten himself into a corner where he says it’s my amendment or it’s nothing.”
(Mr. Stupak says he urged the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to toughen its stance on the legislation; representatives from the conference and the National Right to Life Committee did not return calls.)
For now, as he mulls his return to Washington, Mr. Stupak is canvassing his district, adding to the 180,000 miles on his Oldsmobile, and grilling — in the snow, without a jacket — at his lakeside log-cabin home for his wife, Laurie.
He is trying to pass the health care overhaul, he insists, not sabotage it, and predicts that the legislation will ultimately collapse for reasons apart from abortion. But he will be blamed anyway, he is sure.
“I get the distinct impression that I’m the last guy the president wants to see,” he said.