by Peter Wallsten
Injecting itself aggressively into the health-care debate, the Roman Catholic Church in America has emerged as a major political force with the potential to upend a key piece of President Barack Obama’s agenda.
Behind-the-scenes lobbying, coupled with a grassroots mobilization of Catholic churches across the country, led the House Saturday to pass an amendment to its health-care bill barring anyone who receives a new tax credit from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion, a once-unthinkable event in Democrat-dominated Washington.
The restriction would still have to be accepted by the Senate, where it will likely face a tough fight. The issue could sink the larger health legislation if the chambers fail to reach agreement, or if any consensus language leads supporters to defect.
The House vote, and the central role played by one of the country’s biggest religious denominations, stunned abortion-rights groups that had worked hard to elect Mr. Obama and expand Democratic congressional majorities. Activists on the left had thought social issues would take a back seat to economic concerns.
The bishops’ success served as a reminder that Democrats’ strategy over the past two election cycles of recruiting more conservative candidates to run in competitive House and Senate seats can have unwelcome policy consequences for liberals among the party’s base. About 40 House Democrats are opposed to abortion rights.
The bishops have a history of political activism. In the 2004 presidential race, some bishops said they would refuse to grant communion to Democratic nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who favored abortion rights. In 2005, the bishops’ conference backed efforts by then-President George W. Bush and Republican lawmakers to intervene in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. But rarely has the church entered the fray with such decisive force.
“The Catholic bishops came in at the last minute and drew a line in the sand,” said Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy at the abortion-rights advocacy group Planned Parenthood. “It’s very hard to compete with that.”
Democratic leaders had hoped that a narrower compromise prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortions might win over antiabortion lawmakers, whose support was vital to passing the House bill. When the bishops made it clear in the final hours that they wouldn’t support the compromise, and would oppose the entire bill if it were adopted, more Democrats took notice, according to Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), who participated in the negotiations.
“They command respect because they have a good social-justice record,” said Mr. Doyle, a Roman Catholic. He said he spoke regularly about the issue with his local bishop. “They actually wanted to pass the bill. That’s why they had status. Other groups that had similar views on abortion weren’t interested in passing the bill.”
The church has also agreed with liberals that illegal immigrants should not be excluded from participating in a proposed health-insurance exchange. And there are growing numbers of Catholic Congress members on both sides of the aisle.
Officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Monday that their intention was to retain existing restrictions on federal financing for abortions, not to expand them. They declined to provide specifics of their lobbying activities. Richard Doerflinger, the group’s associate director of the secretariat of pro-life activities, said the conference has begun talking to key senators.
At least four representatives of the group worked the House Friday and Saturday, holding private meetings with lawmakers and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The group distributed talking points to priests across the country and gave fliers to churches featuring the headline, “Health Care Reform Is About Saving Lives, Not Destroying Them.” A prayer circulated to churches supporting an overhaul of the health-care system included the phrase: “We will raise our voices to protect the unborn.”
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, an evangelical group that tends to side with Republicans, said Saturday’s vote ranked among the most important victories for abortion foes since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing the procedure, because it came under Democratic leadership.
“There was a shifting when the Republicans lost control [of Congress], but the ideological shift was not as great as the partisan shift,” said Mr. Perkins.