The Catholic Church interferes with a rival doctrine: the U.S. Senate's.

How to fix health policy.
March 5 2010 2:38 PM

Whither Ecumenism?

Catholics interfere with a rival doctrine.

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Bart Stupak. Click image to expand.
Bart Stupak

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a very high regard for its own church doctrine (at least, when it comes to abortion). But it demonstrates surprising indifference to the doctrine of another church, the one that goes by the name "U.S. Senate."

In a March 4 interview, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos asked Rep. Bart Stupak (who leads the somewhat dishonest pro-life opposition to health care reform) how the change Stupak desires could possibly be included in a budget-reconciliation bill. Under Senate rules, reconciliation can deal only with matters relating to the budget, and the Congressional Budget Office has already determined that replacing the Senate language on abortion with Stupak's more restrictive language would have no budgetary impact. Stupak's reply was a head-scratcher. "You can do it," he said. "If there's a will, there's a way. That's just an excuse that they're giving." Stupak said the same thing to Greta Van Susteren of Fox News (adding the additional possibility of a third bill, which would meet parliamentary requirements but which would probably render an already-politically-difficult maneuver impossible). "They have strange rules over there," Stupak told Van Susteren. But he suggested those rules could be got around.

I stopped wondering what Stupak meant when I read a March 5 article in Politico by David Rogers ("Bishops Offer Help With Senate"). Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Rogers, "We would strongly urge everyone, Democratic and Republican, to vote to waive the point of order. Whether it would be enough to get to 60 votes, I can't predict. We would certainly try." Allow me to explain. Under a rule devised in the mid-1980s by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate parliamentarian decides whether this or that item in a reconciliation bill is sufficiently relevant to the budget. If it isn't, the parliamentarian advises Senate leaders to toss it out. Vice President Joe Biden, in his capacity as president of the Senate, would likely rule in the parliamentarian's favor. But if any senator moved to waive this ruling ("point of order"), a vote would be held. * The bishops then would work the Senate floor madly to cobble together a 60-vote coalition of pro-health-reform Democrats and pro-life Republicans. (Under reconciliation, it takes a 60-vote majority to waive a point of order under these circumstances.) As Rogers notes, they did a pretty good job of this in November when the Stupak amendment came to the House floor, where it passed 240-194. Even hard-core health reform opponents like House Republican Leader John Boehner, R.-Ohio, and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., voted for the Stupak amendment. They did this knowing it would smooth the path toward health reform's House passage. They did it because they couldn't cast a vote that would be seen as pro-choice on abortion.

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I hold no reverence for Senate canon law on reconciliation. Indeed, I've suggested in the past that Biden might overrule it. But to do so in this instance would require Senate Democrats to flout the parliamentarian on a matter that lacks any ambiguity whatsoever. The health reform's abortion language will not affect federal spending, because neither the Senate bill nor any language acceptable to Stupak would allow the federal government to spend taxpayer dollars on abortion. (See "Why Stupak Is Wrong.") Moreover, the bishops would be urging Democrats to overrule the parliamentarian in order to do something most of them consider morally abhorrent—prohibit many private insurers from covering abortions. Finally, overruling the parliamentarian in a fashion so blatantly illegitimate would invite the health reform bill's opponents to challenge the parliamentarian's favorable rulings on other reconciliation items, which might conceivably unravel health reform altogether. For these reasons, I consider this strategy highly unrealistic.

I'm also struck by its lack of ecumenism. Idiotic or not, the Senate's rules command at least as much reverence within that institution as the Roman Catholic Church's strictures on matters like birth control and abortion do inside Vatican City. I'm not sure it's wise, or even consistent with the historic reforms of Vatican II, for the Church to interfere with the dogma of a competing faith. Sen. Robert Byrd doesn't try to make the pope eat meat on Fridays. Why should the Church try to make Byrd put the Stupak amendment into a reconciliation bill?

E-mail Timothy Noah at chatterbox@slate.com.

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Correction, March 8, 2010: An earlier version of this column described this parliamentary procedure incorrectly. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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