The Speaker’s Lobby: The Genie and the Bottle

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

21 November 2009

The genie is out of the bottle.

And the challenge now facing Congressional Democratic leaders is how to put the genie back in the bottle.

In this case, the genie is abortion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) did the unthinkable two weeks ago. The powerful Speaker faced defeat on the health care reform bill. And despite being an unwavering abortion rights supporter, pro-life Democrats forced Pelosi to accede to their demands and allow the adoption of a wide-ranging anti-abortion amendment. Just to salvage the health care bill from parliamentary purgatory.

Pelosi’s maneuver stunned pro-choice advocacy groups. And it infuriated abortion rights voices in her caucus, most notably Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and her trusted Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY). They may not have liked Pelosi’s ploy. But they know down deep it was necessary to pass the health legislation.

So as the health bill moves to the Senate, the abortion genie is out of the bottle. That means Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) now carries two titles: Senate Majority Leader. And he’s also tasked with being the “Genie-Back-In-the-Bottle-Stuffer-In-Chief.”

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) drafted the House’s anti-abortion amendment. Stupak’s plan prohibits federally-backed health insurance programs from covering elective abortions and bans the use of federal subsidies to pay for abortions.

Reid didn’t allow the Stupak amendment to become part of his legislation. Instead, the Senate package allows government-run health plans to offer abortions so long as no taxpayer dollars are used to pay for them. The Senate measure also requires women who receive federal subsidies to purchase health coverage to pay for abortions with their own money.

“I think they handle (the abortion issue) much better over there,” said Louise Slaughter of Reid’s decision to leave the Stupak amendment out of the health bill.

“I’m pleased with the language that is in the Senate bill. And I think it is pretty clear that no federal funds will be spent on abortion,” said Pelosi. “The conversations continue and I am optimistic that we will find a common ground.”

But the abortion genie is out of the bottle. And Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) demonstrates why it’s so hard to tuck it back in.

Nelson announced Friday he would vote for a procedural measure that would allow the Senate to debate the health care bill. But Nelson is vowing to block final passage of the Senate legislation unless there are major changes to ensure that no federal dollars would go toward abortion.

Pro-life Republicans are seizing on abortion. Certainly they admire the Stupak amendment. And they are wary of Reid’s approach.

Since the mid-1970s, Democratic and Republican Congresses alike have okayed what’s known as the “Hyde Amendment” to ban the federal funding of abortions. But abortion remains legal. Now there’s worry from pro-lifers that the Reid bill alters what Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) called an “uneasy truce” between the sides.

“Unfortunately what this legislation does is to move that fulcrum to the left and say, yes, under certain circumstances, there will be federal funding of abortions,” Kyl said.

Naturally, the lack of a provision like Stupak in the Senate bill invigorates anti-abortion forces. So GOP leaders are doing all they can to keep the genie out of the bottle and gin up pro-lifers from both sides of the aisle.

“The Democratic bill for the first time in history would allow federal programs to pay for elective abortion,” said Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

So which side will prevail?

The rowdy town hall meetings of August proved that Republicans electrified their conservative base in nearly united opposition to the health care reform bill. Almost immediately, commentators and political handicappers started playing a death fugue for vulnerable Democrats in the next election cycle. Women are the core of the Democratic party. And the Democratic base largely failed to materialize to argue in favor of the health care bill at the August town meetings.

It may be an unintended benefit. But it’s possible the Stupak amendment awakened a sleeping giant of crucial pro-choice Democrats.

“I think it’s energizing like-minded men and women,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). “They’re fired up about this. A change that moves us backwards is not the change we want.”

“This shouldn’t even be in the bill,” echoed Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) about the Stupak amendment. “My hope is this will enliven these people who want health care and don’t want this poison pill in the bill.”

But 41 pro-life House Democrats voted in favor of the Stupak amendment. They could torpedo the legislation if the Senate Democratic leadership manages to wedge the abortion genie back into the bottle.

The trick for Pelosi and Reid is to find a way to tip-toe across the abortion tightrope without alienating either the pro-choice and pro-life wings of their party. The pro-choicers already feel as though they’ve taken a hit with the Stupak amendment. And they believe it’s time the pro-lifers accommodate them this time around.

Pelosi and Reid can emerge victorious if they craft a compromise that’s agreeable to both sides. But no one has clue as to what such a deal would look like.

“This bill is not about abortion,” Pelosi said. “This is a bill about health care.”

But until they can solve the abortion conundrum, the focus of debate centers on abortion.

It’s almost as though Pelosi and Reid need a genie themselves to find their way out of this legislative cul-de-sac.

All genies are card-carrying members of the Genie Society of Professional Altruistic Nomads (that’s “G-SPAN” for short). G-SPAN protocol mandates that all genies offer their liberators three wishes when they conjure them out of the bottle.

Nancy Pelosi may not have unearthed a bottle with a genie in it. But she certainly has three wishes. The Speaker told reporters Thursday that she wants no federal money spent on abortions, no expansion of restrictions on abortions (as imposed by the Stupak plan) and to finally pass a comprehensive health care bill.

In the case of Pelosi, three wishes might be overkill. If she’s shrewd, the Speaker knows she just needs one: to wish the abortion genie back into the bottle. And if that wish becomes reality, it’s doubtful Pelosi needs the other two wishes to haul the health care reform bill across the finish line.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.