Is This An Abortion Whip Count?

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Bart Stupak told George Stephanopoulos this morning that he and 11 other Democrats who supported health reform in November will vote against the Senate version because they believe that it contains insufficient restrictions on abortion funding. That probably didn’t help Nancy Pelosi’s breakfast go down smoothly, but Stupak’s vow at least gave her a better sense of what numbers she’s dealing with.

With the death of John Murtha and the resignations of Neil Abercrombie and Robert Wexler, the magic number Pelosi needs to pass the Senate version is 217. The one Republican who supported health reform last fall–Joseph Cao from Louisiana–has switched his vote to a “no,” which means that even if every Democrat who voted for health reform the first time did so again, the ayes would still only come to 216. Take away the Stupak Dozen and Pelosi is down to 204.

Before we declare health reform dead, though, there are a couple other points to consider. One is that Stupak hasn’t always been the best judge of what his pro-life colleagues will do. After the November vote, the Michigan Democrat warned that if his abortion language didn’t survive, “there will be 40 people who won’t vote with them the next time they need us–and that could be the final version of this bill.” Twelve vote-switchers still pose a significant hurdle for the Democratic leadership to overcome, but they’re a heck of a lot easier than 40.

Some of the Stupak dozen are genuinely convinced that the Senate’s abortion language allows for government funding of abortions and consider their vote switch a stand on principle. Others, though, are paying close attention to ad campaigns targeting their conservative constituents and are primarily concerned about preserving their seats in November. These Democrats may find that switching their votes will help them shore up their pro-life credentials. But as Jonathan Cohn points out today, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t still be hit with attack ads for their initial support of health reform last fall.

The other relevant number is how many Democrats who originally voted against health reform are willing to switch their votes and support the effort. The AP sent a survey to House members and reported that at least nine Democrats indicated they were considering switching their “no” votes to “yes.” If those nine do come through for Pelosi, that would bring her total up to 213–still three short, but within striking distance. Pick off a couple of the Stupak Dozen, sway another “no” vote and she’s there.

In order to do that, however, Pelosi has got to do a better job of hiding her exasperation with her pro-life colleagues. When asked about Stupak’s concerns, she has on three separate occasions in the past week flatly dismissed them as unfounded. “There is no federal funding of abortion,” says Pelosi. By that she means two things: 1) the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds, with some exceptions, to pay for abortions; and 2) she does not interpret the Senate’s version of health reform as allowing federal funding of abortion.

As it happens, a lot of people–including a number of pro-life politicians and religious leaders–share Pelosi’s interpretation. But some don’t, and it’s not as if they’re suddenly going to smack themselves in the forehead and say, “By golly, she’s right! I hadn’t looked closely enough at the bill, but now that the Speaker points that out, I see that it doesn’t fund abortions at all!” It wouldn’t kill her–and it just might help negotiations with some wavering Democrats–if Pelosi would try saying something more like: “I understand that’s how some of my colleagues interpret the language of the Senate bill. I see it differently, but I do respect their concerns.”

That sort of response might sound as if it simply writes off those pro-life Democratic votes. To the contrary, it would actually open a door that Pelosi has currently slammed shut.

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