In the wake of the House vote for President Obama's government takeover of health care, some conservative commentators are asking what may have been had House Republicans decided to follow Rep. John Shadegg's (R-AZ) advice to vote present on the Stupak-Pitts amendment. The amendment prohibits the federal government from spending any funds to provide abortion under the plan's public option and prohibits anyone receiving a federal subsidy from purchasing a health insurance plan that covers abortion.
Sixty-four Democrats voted with Republicans in passing Stupak. The argument says that had Republicans voted "present" or "no" on the amendment, it would have failed. The theory is that those sixty-four Democrats would have abandoned the final bill without the prohibition included, effectively killing the overall effort to socialize the nation's health care system.
But that thinking represents the triumph of hope over experience. It supposes that Nancy Pelosi, who has shown herself to be nothing if not a cold-blooded and ruthless political operative, would not take any other necessary steps to find the votes necessary to pass the bill. The only reason Stupak was allowed to come to a vote in the first place was because Pelosi was willing to shiv two-thirds of her caucus to get the bill passed. Pelosi, and Obama, would have moved any obstacle, made any promise, and broken any number of arms to get the White House a "victory" on health care, however hollow that victory may ultimately turn out to be.
The Stupak Amendment is not likely to survive the House-Senate conference and make it into the final bill. This point was dramatically brought out by Minority Leader John Boehner on the house floor when three successive Democratic chairmen refused to guarantee that the amendment would be included in the eventual conference report. Indeed, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) said today that she is very confident that the language will not be included.
Some have argued that forcing a vote on the health care bill without Stupak would have shown Democrats' true nature: unconcerned about abortion but hell bent on expanding the federal government's power. Although such a vote will eventually happen when the conference report, when it does it will not be a true test of the Shadegg strategy.
Presumably, the bill that comes out of conference will be minus Stupak and some list of other provisions in the current House bill. Any of those missing provisions could move votes. Supposing the conference report is minus Stupak and a "robust" public option. It would then lose Liberals and pro-lifers, and we wouldn't know for sure how a bill minus Stupak alone would have fared.
In addditon, voting on final passage of a conference report is a whole different ballgame than voting on a bill that one expects to go through some changes in conference. Even without Stupak, pro-life Democrats can be counted on to swallow hard and vote for the bill so as not to be seen as standing in the way of History.
In the face of that outcome, the only sensible thing to do on Stupak was to vote in favor. Shadegg's strategy, though well intentioned, would have resulted in giving cover to vulnerable Blue Dog Democrats in 2010. In the those races, when Republicans are hammering them on voting to allow federal funding of abortions, the Blue Dogs won't be able to hide behind the 40 or so Republicans that voted "against" Stupak by voting present.
The sad fact is that Republicans are in their minority position because they abandoned their principles. The way back to the majority certainly is not more of the same, however much strategy may be involved. The American people want leaders that stand for something, and Republicans are showing them that they do. There are no magic bullet votes or grand strategies that will return Republicans to the majority in Congress. It's going to take old-fashioned hard work, patient explanation, and dogged adherence to principle. Stupak was a good start.