How House Democrats plan to take advantage of Republican overreach on abortion.

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Feb. 16 2011 6:46 PM

Forcing the Issue

How House Democrats plan to take advantage of Republican overreach on abortion.

Steve Israel. Click image to expand.
Rep. Steve Israel

The man in charge of taking back the House for Democrats is talking about rape. When the Republicans took Congress, says Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, they didn't focus on creating jobs. "They focused on redefining rape."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

He's referring to the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, the first of several bills Republicans introduced to chip away at the unpopular bits of "Obamacare," and it had Democratic support. But eight days after Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., introduced the bill in January, Nick Baumann of Mother Jones reported that the legislation limited the conditions under which women could get federal funding for abortions. "Rape" no longer counted; what counted was "forcible rape."

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That started the biggest backlash in the short, otherwise happy life of the new Republican House. The Daily Show ran jokes about the "rape loophole." Instead of a popular bill, Smith had handed the GOP a toxic mess. And Israel intends to keep using it against them. He's talking about this a day after the DCCC sent out a fundraising message pegged to the "forcible rape" mess, subject line "Outrageous."

"We need to bring out 9 million independent voters," Israel explains. "If you do a geographic analysis of them, they live in about 37 fairly suburban, moderate districts across the country. Those 9 million independent voters, in those 37 [districts], elected Republicans because Republicans said that they would, on Day One, focus on revitalizing jobs. And what did they do on Day One? They redefined rape. That is not what those independent voters expected from the new Republican majority."

This is the kind of bluster you can engage in after your opponent has dunked on himself. It will undoubtedly continue until at least Nov. 6, 2012. Abortion rights activists, whose relevance had been waning during elections fought over the war in Iraq and the Great Recession, have found a toehold in politics again. The strategy has three parts.

1) Wait for the pro-life movement, now at an apex of political power, to do something stupid.
2) Pounce on the stupid thing that it just did.
3) Repeat.

The "forcible rape" episode is just the first act in this drama. When Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., introduced the Protect Life Act, pro-choice activists homed in on a provision that seemed to let hospitals get away with refusing to provide abortions to women with medical emergencies. When South Dakota state Rep. Phil Jensen introduced legislation in that state—just that state!— to broaden the definition of "justifiable homicide" to protect someone "resisting any attempt" to kill an unborn child, there was more backlash and more national news. The strategy isn't all that different from the one budget scolds use to attack spending bills, picking out the least defensible pieces and using them as battering rams until the other side gives in.

"I think the anti's [the anti-abortion rights side] took a really big bite out of the apple," says Elizabeth Shipp, the political director of NARAL. * "They said, 'We can go all the way, and do the worst crap we can think of.' When Chris Smith included that 'forcible' language in the bill, he knew what he was doing. He got caught."

But nothing really gets introduced in Congress without offending some interest group or another. Pro-choice activists have had an unusually good month of finding offenses and blowing them up to Daily Show size. They've done this during the same month that a conservative coalition called Expose Planned Parenthood has been releasing undercover videos of the organization's offices, claiming evidence of crime and corruption, aimed at denying federal funds for family planning.

What are the stakes? The Republican House was always likely to pass anti-abortion legislation; pro-choice activists concede that it's still going to do so. The question is whether the legislation could roll through the Senate. There were reasons to be fearful. In 2009, Sen. Ben Nelson got 45 votes for an amendment to the health care bill that would have done what Smith's bill does. There is, theoretically, a Senate majority for pro-life bills.

But there might not be if they become toxic, or if they're portrayed as part of a national bum-rush toward some Anti-Abortionist's Bill of Rights. The pro-choice members of the House, who hadn't feared much since 2007, met right before Rep. Joe Pitts' hearing on his legislation. It was when Pitts became chairman of the subcommittee on health that they figured out what they'd be dealing with.

That's most of the plan. The rest of the plan, as Israel explains, is making life difficult for some of the pro-life Republicans who were swept into Congress last year. The theory is that voters sort of elected them by accident. And they are numerous. At this year's March for Life, an annual rally against legal abortion, 17 newly elected members of Congress spoke, stretching the speechifying part of the event about an hour longer than scheduled.

The new members include lots of people who took over suburban districts that had been trending more liberal. The Republicans who won, in most cases, didn't run on abortion. They got pro-life support—the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List endorsed 14 Republican congressional candidates who took over Democratic seats. But Democrats remain convinced that the new class was never smoked out.

Take Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., one of the Democrats' favorite examples. She started in politics as a spokeswoman for Operation Rescue in the 1980s. She didn't hide this fact, but when she began running, she said she'd "be really careful not to make this a referendum on abortion." Her opponent, incumbent Rep. Dan Maffei, tried to make abortion an issue. He lost. And when Buerkle got to Congress she immediately became a prominent pro-life advocate. Pro-choice activists can explain all of this, or try to.

"When somebody's out of a job and looking for one party to fix that, he tends to vote with his pocketbook," says NARAL's Shipp. "It was probably more difficult for us to get through the noise last year."

It is tough for abortion rights activists to get through the noise. That's what the Planned Parenthood stings were all about: a way to win turf on an issue both sides had been entrenched on since the age of Betamax. Also effective for doing this: Making the man on the street worry that Congress is about to redefine rape.

Correction, Feb. 17, 2011: This article originally misspelled Elizabeth Shipp's last name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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