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Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. (AP/Photo by Alex Brandon)

Let's make a deal

Healthcare | With a last-minute assist by pro-life Democrats, healthcare reform squeaks by in the House

WASHINGTON-The Democrats got their decades long healthcare wish Sunday night with a key assist from a voting bloc of pro-life Democrats. Now the question of whether this vote ends up being an electoral death wish for the party will have to wait until November.

After a nearly 11-hour day, the House approved the Senate-passed healthcare bill on a 219-212 vote Sunday with just 34 Democrats joining all Republicans in opposition to one of the most sweeping pieces of social legislation in the nation's history. The measure now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into law this week.

In this healthcare climax, abortion once again played a crucial role in the yearlong push for expanding the federal government's authority in what amounts to one-sixth of the nation's economy.

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Much of the suspense behind Sunday's showdown in the House over the Democrats' $940 billion healthcare bill ended early when pro-life Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., called an afternoon press conference to announce his support for the measure.

Surrounded by about a half-dozen other pro-life Democrats, Stupak said he would no longer oppose the bill after striking a deal with the White House.

Stupak was swayed after Obama agreed to sign an executive order stating the new law will uphold long-standing restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion services. With this sudden support from pro-life Democrats, the healthcare victory of House Democrats was all but assured.

"There was a principle that meant more to us than anything and that was the sanctity of life," said Stupak, who added he has assurances that the president "will not rip this up tomorrow."

But many pro-life groups quickly questioned the value of such an order and accused Stupak, their one-time hero for forcing strict abortion restrictions in a previous healthcare bill last November, for capitulating from his pro-life stance.

In a statement, the National Right to Life Committee said Democrats issued the order merely for political effect: "The president cannot amend a bill by issuing an order, and the federal courts will enforce what the law says."

Indeed, in 1976, Congress had to pass a law banning the use of federal funds for abortion, called the Hyde Amendment, in response to the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

House Republican Leader John Boehner argued that the very need for an executive order proves that even Democrats acknowledge that this healthcare bill includes new paths to the federal funding of abortion.

"No executive order or regulation can override a statutory mandate unless Congress passes a law that prohibits federal funding from being used in this manner," Boehner added.

One pro-life Democrat, Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas, agreed and voted against the bill, saying the legislation and the executive order "do not go far enough" in preventing federal funds from being used for abortions.

Indeed, sections of the drafted executive order clearly state that it will not "impair" authority granted by law and that it does not "create" any "enforceable law."

A majority of pro-life groups argue that the bill fails to prohibit federal funds from going to plans that cover elective abortions, and they worry that its $2.5 billion funding increase for community health centers does not prohibit those centers from using these dollars to offer elective abortions.

Still, with just three votes past the 216 Democrats needed for passage, the last-minute deal with Stupak and a handful of his colleagues clearly put healthcare over the top. Without the late shift among the pro-life Democratic voting bloc, Sunday likely would have had a very different ending.

"It is disappointing to see members of Congress exchange 30 years of pro-life law for a piece of paper from the most pro-abortion president in American history," lamented Mike Pence, R-Ind.

Reprisals for Stupak came quickly: Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund, said her group was revoking its "Defender of Life" award to Stupak, which was to be awarded at its Wednesday night gala.

"Let me be clear: Any representative, including Rep. Stupak, who votes for this healthcare bill can no longer call themselves 'pro-life,'" Dannenfelser said.

In addition to its implications for abortion, the bill's passage begins the final chapter of the Democrats' huge gamble that Americans eventually will accept a federal takeover of healthcare. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Sunday seemed to cast doubt on that hope. They chanted, "We will remember," "Kill the bill," and "Vote no. Vote no," as Democratic lawmakers, locked arm-in-arm, made their way from House offices to the Capitol to kick off the day of debate. In the end, Democrats, guarded by Capitol police, brushed by the protestors on their way inside where they then brushed by public polls in voting for a bill that a majority of Americans have continued to oppose.

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