House Democrats late Saturday night overcame a mountain of insurance industry opposition to pass the first substantive healthcare reform legislation since Medicare passed more than 40 years ago. Some conservatives sought to use the abortion issue as a foil to defeat life-saving coverage for all Americans, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep Bart Stupak proved the duplicity of the conservatives by amending the legislation with prohibitions on federal supplements for any plans that pay for abortion--despite the historic concessions on the abortion issue, only one Republican had the courage to vote in favor of the bill. Rep Anh "Joe" Cao of Louisiana, himself a Catholic and a former Jesuit priest, added the lone bipartisan stroke of affirmation.
Conservatives had increasingly sought in recent years to portray the Democrats as a "pro-abortion" party, but sixty-four Democrats voted in favor of Stupak's amendment. Democrats who opposed the amendment generally indicated that they felt the legislation itself had provided adequate assurance that the status quo on abortion funding would be maintained. The original bill had included language maintaining current restrictions on federal funding for abortion and guaranteeing conscience rights for doctors.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in pastoral letters issued in 1981 and 1993, had called for universal healthcare coverage. In bulletin inserts distributed across the country, the bishops asserted the importance of opposing federal funding for abortion in the new healthcare legislation. The final bill incorporated language addressing all the bishops concerns about that issue, and advanced a key Catholic public policy priority--to stop the suffering and death that had accelerated in recent years among Americans who could not afford health insurance.
"This is a day for celebration among Catholics and all Americans who believe that life's greatest test is how deeply we care for one another," said Dr Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats. "Those who attempted to use the abortion issue to defeat health reform put their dishonesty on full display Saturday by opposing this life-saving legislation despite the extraordinary precautions that were included to address the expressed concerns," he said.
39 Democrats voted against the legislation, including ten Catholics. Among them was Rep Dennis Kucinich from Cleveland. In contrast to many others, Kucinich indicated that his opposition was a result of the fact that the legislation did not go far enough to address the needs of people without insurance. "An amendment which would have protected the rights of states to pursue single-payer health care was stripped from the bill at the request of the Administration. Looking ahead, we cringe at the prospect of even greater favors for insurance companies."
Rep Eric Massa, from a large district in Western New York, also complained about what he saw as the shortcomings of the legislation, saying, "This bill will enshrine in law the monopolistic powers of the private health insurance industry, period. There's really no other way to look at it. I believe the private health insurance industry is part of the problem."
The other Catholic Democratic members of Congress opposing the legislation were Jason Altmire (PA-4), Gene Taylor (MS-4), Jim Marshall (GA-8), Charlie Melancon (LA-3), Betsy Markey (CO-4), Michael E. McMahon (NY-13), Tim Holden (PA-17), John Boccieri (OH-16), and Jason Altmire (PA-4).
Their reasons for opposing the measure were varied. Another Cleveland area representative, John Boccieri, said he supported providing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, but was concerned about the cost. He had joined other House Democrats earlier in the day on a procedural vote to permit debate on the health care bill to begin. Staten Island Rep McMahon issued a statement that applauded many of the goals of the legislation, but explained his 'no' vote by saying, "I do not believe that the House bill goes far enough in containing the cost curve in which healthcare spending takes up a larger and larger share of our GDP."
Attention now moves to the Senate, where Republicans have vowed to block insurance reform. "We urge the Catholic members of Congress to support this landmark legislation, and the progress it represents in helping to realize the Gospel imperative of making health and healing available to all Americans," said Dr Whelan.