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Associated Press/Photo by Claire Abent (Mining Journal)

Stepping down

Politics | Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak becomes a political casualty of the new healthcare law

From pro-life hero to pro-life target, it has been a dizzying few months for nine-term congressman Bart Stupak.

Now the Michigan Democrat may be the first political casualty of the controversial new trillion-dollar healthcare law.

After playing an unforeseen starring role in Congress' healthcare debate, Stupak is stepping off the congressional stage.

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"It's time to begin a new and exciting chapter,'' he said Friday afternoon in announcing his retirement at a press conference in his congressional district.

But it is hard to imagine Stupak experiencing a chapter more exciting then the last six months: Heralded last November by pro-life groups for his role in successfully insisting that strong pro-life protections be inserted in the House version of healthcare reform, Stupak then did an about-face and opposed his own pro-life amendment when the final healthcare package came before the House last month.

After pressure-filled negotiations with top Democrats from the White House to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Stupak, in the 11th hour, traded in his tough pro-life language for a benign executive order that states (without force of law) that public funds will not be used for abortions.

The deal pleased Planned Parenthood, which called the order a "symbolic gesture," and infuriated pro-life groups. Mot importantly, it paved the way for healthcare reform, which finally passed after six pro-life Democrats joined Stupak in support of the bill-essentially giving the measure its seven-vote victory margin.

Stripped of such accolades as the Susan B. Anthony List's "Defender of Life" award, Stupak did not last one post-healthcare recess in his home district before announcing he would not seek a 10th term.

"For two decades Rep. Bart Stupak stood firm for the pro-life cause," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "It is a shame that he will leave Congress remembered more for his vote on the Obama healthcare bill, the largest abortion promoting piece of legislation in the last 30 years."

Saying he was tired and wanting to spend more time with his family, Stupak on Friday insisted that the climactic healthcare switch would not have cost him defeat if he had decided to stay in office. Rather, he argued it was time to leave because healthcare reform was his main legislative goal.

"Last month, we finally accomplished what I set out to do 18 years ago-we passed comprehensive national healthcare reform," said Stupak, who made his decision just within the last 36 hours.

Stupak also is a former resident of the controversial C Street House. Affiliated with the religious group known as The Fellowship, the house's past and present residents took fire last year after some of its past boarders became embroiled in marital infidelities. (See "All in the family," by Emily Belz and Edward Lee Pitts, Aug. 29, 2009.) Some Washington-based groups are also calling for an investigation into the house because it allows its residents to live near the U.S. Capitol for below market rent-a possible gift violation.

"I've wanted to leave a couple of times," Stupak said Friday. "But I always thought there was one more job to be done. Either I'll run again and be there forever, or it's time to make the break and move on."

His announcement came after the Tea Party Express held rallies against Stupak this week in his northern Michigan district. Two days ago, the group also unveiled a $250,000 TV and radio advertising campaign to defeat Stupak, saying he has "betrayed our Constitution."

"You sold us out on the healthcare vote," the ad continues, "And now it's time for you to pay the political price."

In Ironwood, Mich., 400 resident turned out for the Tea Party rally there Thursday night-10 percent of the city's population, according to Tea Party Express spokesman Bryan Shroyer.

"People in this district are furious," Shroyer said.

In fact, Stupak's healthcare tango had managed to raise the ire of both the left and the right. The National Organization for Women had endorsed a pro-abortion Democrat who was taking on Stupak in the primary race. Meanwhile a large caravan of conservative groups was preparing to pump people and dollars into the race to replace Stupak with a Republican.

In the cold world of political calculus, Stupak's retirement leaves Democrats with 18 open seats and hurts the party in its bid to maintain control of the House after this year's mid-term elections. It was already expected to be a tough November for Pelosi and company, but an open Michigan seat in a conservative-leaning district provides Republicans with the upper hand there-something that would not have been guaranteed if the GOP were forced to take on an incumbent like Stupak. That is why Pelosi and President Obama had spent the last few days trying once more to work their magic on Stupak and get him to stay.

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