March 22, 2010
The fate of health care reform may have turned on a single relationship.
When they needed to find a way to unlock the votes of a group of anti-abortion lawmakers led by Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, Democratic leaders turned to Stupak’s roommate, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, to facilitate the critical talks.
Doyle urged Stupak to write his own version of an executive order that would bridge the abortion divide by reinforcing a ban on the use of federal funds for abortion — a plan that was circulating at the highest levels of the West Wing early last week.
“The idea was brought up, and I just said to Bart: ‘You write up an executive order. … Write the one that you’d write,’” Doyle recalled in his thick Pittsburgh accent. “That started the process of the back and forth between Bart and the White House and the leadership. I just kept people meeting.”
In announcing his decision to accept the White House deal, which involved the executive order and a colloquy on the House floor intended to establish legislative intent in the event of a court challenge, Stupak gave a shout-out to his best friend in Washington.
“As things got critical, Mike Doyle was sort of the liaison between the White House and all of us, and Mike Doyle deserves a lot of credit,” Stupak said. “In fact, he was in all of the meetings.”
But lawmakers say Doyle limited his role to host and facilitator, giving anti-abortion Democrats and White House officials a quiet spot to meet in a fourth-foor Cannon House Office Building annex far enough removed from both the White House and the Capitol to elude the notice of the media. Doyle, an old-school legislator who shies away from the spotlight, was tapped by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to act as an emissary to Stupak.
Several lawmakers involved in the talks with the White House said Doyle stayed away from the heart of the discussions, which were brokered by White House counsel Bob Bauer, whose practice of election law at Perkins Coie makes him a familiar and trusted adviser to many House Democrats.
Doyle opposes abortion — and federal funding for it — but acknowledges he isn’t a “100 percenter,” like the members of Stupak’s group.
After a round of negotiations late Saturday night, Democratic leaders began to feel confident that Stupak and his small but crucial set of allies could be swayed to vote for the health care bill.
The next morning, White House aides presented a near-final draft of the executive order to Stupak’s group and a contingent of abortion-rights supporters at the same time in separate rooms in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suite of offices in the Capitol, according to Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
Both sides claimed victory, with anti-abortion lawmakers satisfied that the stringent ban written into the initial House bill by a Stupak-drafted amendment would be enforced and abortion-rights supporters judging that Stupak’s language would not be the law of the land.
“Our policy folks analyzed the order and concluded it did not codify Stupak,” said an official from an abortion-rights organization that reviewed the text Sunday afternoon. “We were gratified it did not codify Stupak.”
But some outside groups on both sides of the debate took shots at the deal.
“The president’s decision to issue an executive order designed to assuage Rep. Stupak and his cohorts is a betrayal of millions of women across this country and of his campaign promises,” Nancy Northup, president of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement released Sunday evening. “The order lends credibility to an already impossibly flawed policy that punishes and discriminates against poor women by denying them the full range of reproductive health services and their constitutional right.”
Abortion foes weren’t pleased either.
“We believe Mr. Stupak’s choice to succumb to the intense pressure of the last week has resulted in his endorsement of a charade that does not even begin to address the anti-life provisions in this legislation,” Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life Action, said in a statement.
On a broader level, the deal rallied Democrats into position to expand access to health insurance to nearly every American.
And Doyle, who manages House Democrats’ team in the annual congressional baseball game, delivered the crucial ninth-inning hit to keep that rally going.
“Mike was trying to move the bill,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), one of the last holdouts on the abortion issue. “He was trying to keep the dialogue going.”
Doyle’s friends say he is trusted by all parties because he is discreet and works hard.
“So much of what gets done here gets done because of personal relationships,” said Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), another member of Stupak’s group.
DeGette, who serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee with Doyle, said she’s spoken to her Pennsylvania colleague about the abortion issue on a daily basis for months.
“He won’t lie to anybody,” said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who often sits near Doyle in the southeast corner of the House chamber.
Doyle said he kept working with his close friend because he believed Stupak wanted to be a yes vote on the overall bill.
“I always knew that he wanted to pass health care reform,” Doyle said.
He was a bit reluctant to talk about his role in the process, continuing to observe the silence that helped him keep the trust of all players and move the health care overhaul forward.
If he’d blown that trust by talking to the media, Doyle said, “[health care reform] wouldn’t have happened.”