White House Changes Its Rhetoric on Abortion Funding in Health Bill; Pro-Life Democrat Says ‘There Have Been Good Conversations’ About It

By Fred Lucas | October 29, 2009 | 10:56 PM EDT

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - A day after the White House changed its rhetoric in responding to the question of whether the health care bill under consideration in Congress should include language explicitly prohibiting federal funding of abortion, a pro-life Democrat who has been threatening to derail the bill over that issue said conversations are moving forward on an effort to resolve it.

“There have been good conversations in the past 24 hours,” Rep. Bart Stupak (D.-Mich.) told CNSNews.com in a statement on Thursday.

Stupak (D-Mich.) told CNSNews.com last week in a videotaped interview that he had organized a group of about 40 Democrats who will join him in voting to block the health care bill from coming to a vote on the House floor unless Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) agrees to allow a straight up or down vote on an amendment he has sponsored. The amendment—which mirrors the language of the “Hyde Amendment” that has been routinely included in various annual appropriations bills since 1976--would specifically prohibit any federal dollars from paying for any part of any health insurance plan that covers abortion.

Stupak also told CNSNews.com in that interview that he has been telling White House advisers he wants the president to call Pelosi to tell her to put the language of his amendment into the bill. “We have been urging the president to call the speaker and tell her to put the language back in that we want,” said Stupak.

On Tuesday, CNSNews.com asked White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs whether the president was going to intervene on the issue with Pelosi.

“I will see if there's any update from legislative affairs on that,” said Gibbs. “I know that the president's position on this has been clear, that no federal money should be used to pay for abortions in a health care bill.”

This appeared to represent a shift in the White House’s position on the status of abortion funding in the health care bill.

When previously asked by CNSNews.com about Stupak’s amendment and about letters to Congress from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying that they would oppose the health care bill if it was not amended to include the type of language Stupak is proposing, Gibbs repeatedly insisted that current law—i.e. the Hyde Amendment—would already prevent government funding of abortions through the health care bill and that therefore specific language providing for this did not need to be added to the bill.

On Tuesday, Gibbs notably did not repeat this assertion—which has been vigorously refuted by both Stupak and the Catholic bishops--but simply stated that the president’s position is that no federal money should be used to pay for abortion in the health care bill.

Stupak told CNSNews.com in a statement Thursday that he noticed Gibbs’ change of tack and that since Wednesday he has seen “increased willingness to keep the discussion going” in dealing with this and other issues in the health care bill.

“I do note a change, a positive change, in the White House’s position on the issue of federal funding for abortion from Mr. Gibbs’ comments,” said Stupak. “There have been good conversations in the past 24 hours. Those involved have shown an increased willingness to keep the discussion going and try to find acceptable language on affordability and small business credits.”

Gibbs also acknowledged on Wednesday that Stupak and the president had had a conversation about the issue. In an interview with CNSNews.com, Stupak said that during that conversation he had read to the president an excerpt from the president’s own Sept. 9 speech to a joint session of Congress. In this part of the speech, President Obama said: “One more misunderstanding I want to clear up--under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions.”

Stupak said in his interview with CNSNews.com that he had challenged the president on this assertion and that Obama told him that what he meant by it was not that the actual health care bill drafted in the House prohibited abortion funding but that Obama’s personal plan for health care reform would do so. Stupak said he countered this by telling the president he did not have a plan.

“I called him,” said Stupak. “I called the president--had a discussion with the president. And I read exactly what you just said [Obama's statement from his Sept. 9 speech saying that 'under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions']. And he said: ‘What it says is “under my plan”’—meaning the president’s plan. And I said: ‘With all due respect, sir, you do not have a plan. The only plan we have out is the House plan.’ So, I don’t know if it is a game of semantics or what.”

CNSNews.com asked Gibbs Tuesday about this exchange between Stupak and the president.

“I can go back and see if I can get any more clarity on that conversation,” Gibbs said. “I do know they--I mean, obviously, they did talk about this when Congressman Stupak was here.”

Gibbs then told CNSNews.com he would ask someone in the White House legislative affairs office about the conversation between Obama and Stupak. At the end of the day Thursday, however, a White House official said he was uncertain if the White House would have anything more to say about it.

Earlier on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released the nearly 2,000-page-long final text of the House health-care bill. The bill envisions creating “exchanges” in each state that would be the only place people receiving federal health insurance subsidies would be allowed to buy insurance. It also includes an amendment by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) that would require that at least one health insurance plan in each of these exchanges cover abortions. Stupak’s proposed amendment would nullify Capps’ by stating that no federal money could pay for any part of any insurance plan that covers abortion.

“A vote for this bill is a vote to establish a federal government program that will directly fund abortion on demand, with federal funds,” Douglas Johnson of National Right to Life said in a statement Thursday. “The White House and top Democratic congressional leaders are trying to smuggle federal government funding of abortion into law, behind smokescreens of misleading, contrived language.”

Stupak told CNSNews.com last week that if Pelosi does not allow a vote on his amendment he and about 40 “likeminded” Democrats would join with House Republicans to defeat the special House “rule” that would set the terms for debating and amending the health care bill on the House floor when it is brought up for a final vote. If a majority of the House does not first vote to approve this rule, the health care bill itself cannot be brought to the floor. The vote on the rule is likely to occur next week.