The award for outstanding Catholic legislator of 2009 is a shared award and a bipartisan one, something that is increasingly uncommon in Washington these days: Rep. Anh Joseph Cao of Louisiana and Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan. Both stood up to the leadership of their respective parties to cast votes that conform to Catholic social teaching.
Cao was the only Republican to vote for the health care reform bill in the House of Representatives. He did so only after pro-life provisions were included to bar federal funding of abortion in the health care reform effort. In explaining his vote, and his entire approach to issues, Cao cited his Jesuit education and the Church’s commitment to health care for all people. His vote was not likely to help his career: Cao represents an overwhelmingly Democratic district and he only won last time because his opponent had been indicted. Nor did the vote endear him to his fellow Republicans who otherwise had mounted a united front in opposition to any health care reform worthy of the name. His vote should earn him a nomination for the "Profiles in Courage" award given annually by the Kennedy Library.
All summer long, the Democratic leadership in Congress claimed that they had achieved an acceptable compromise on abortion funding known as the Capps Amendment which segregated the federal funds from the individual premiums and only paid for abortion services from the individual premiums. All summer long, many of us in the pro-life community said that the Capps Amendment was no compromise at all, that it amounted to an accounting gimmick. All summer long, Rep. Stupak said he would oppose health care unless a better arrangement was found. All summer long, the leadership ignored him but he refused to budge. Finally, on the night before the vote, still sticking to his guns, Stupak forced the leadership to allow a vote on his amendment and it passed overwhelmingly. The health care bill that then passed the House was unambiguously pro-life.
Stupak represents a conservative district in northern Michigan. If he had buckled to pressure from the leadership it might well have cost him his seat in next year’s election. Indeed, by voting for the eventual bill, he still might face his stiffest challenge in years from the Republicans. But, the issue is worth risking one’s career over and he did so.
An honorable mention from the Senate side goes to Sen. Bob Casey of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He voted for an amendment that mirrored the Stupak language that had passed the House but there were not the votes to pass it. He persisted in trying to improve the bill and he did so. He included important provisions drawn from the Pregnant Women Support Act, a policy that takes as its starting point solidarity with women facing a crisis pregnancy, which is the only starting point that will suffice to find common ground on abortion given the current state of the nation’s political life. He supported the final bill which was also improved by the changes achieved by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. Indeed, I believe the Senate language is preferable to the House language on the issue of abortion for reasons I have outlined previously.
It is important to remember, as the USCCB has made clear time and time again, that the Church supports health care reform provided it bars federal funding of abortion. It is not enough to be opposed to health care reform just as it is not enough to be wishy-washy on abortion funding. The stance of the Church does not align neatly with the leadership of either party, which confirms its correctness. Hats off to Cao, Stupak and Casey for embodying the fullness of the Church’s teaching in their votes on health care reform this year.