A new push against Hyde amendment faces some high hurdles
By Garance Franke-Ruta
A day after President Obama announced that the landmark health-care bill would abide within the abortion restrictions of the Hyde amendment, the National Organization for Women responded Monday by saying that it would pursue a repeal of the more than 30-year-old amendment, which blocks federal funding of most abortions.
"We are going to kick off an emergency campaign to repeal the Hyde Amendment," said NOW President Terry O'Neill. "It has been used in this health-care debate as the basis for provisions that are designed to eliminate all insurance coverage of abortion care ... all private as well as public funding."
NOW expressed strong displeasure Sunday with Obama's statement, part of a compromise the president had cut with House abortion foes in order to pass the health-care overhaul bill. The final legislation preserved the Senate bill's command that women receiving federally subsidized health insurance must cut separate checks to pay for abortion insurance coverage. And Obama agreed to issue an executive order that reaffirmed and extended the Hyde Amendment restrictions.
"I know that [Obama] is with us in understanding the Hyde Amendment is a very unjust law, and I know that he believes that it should not be the law," O'Neill said. But others in the administration have told her, she said, that the Hyde amendment is settled law. "We say it's not."
The NOW president added, "The role of an advocacy organization is to set the vision, to say this is what is just, this is what is morally required."
But the fact that NOW allies such as Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would endorse a contrary position signals the weakness of the group's political position, especially given attention shifting to the 2010 midterm elections.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, another organization favoring abortion rights, said Sunday that the Obama-Stupak deal was "a stark reminder of why we must repeal this unfair and insulting policy."
But the path forward would not be easy with Congress as it is presently constructed, she suggested. "Achieving this goal means increasing the number of lawmakers in Congress who share our pro-choice values. Otherwise, we will continue to see women's reproductive rights used as a bargaining chip," she said.
The political environment heading into the midterms does not augur well for that sort of change. Over the past several decades, election cycles favoring Republicans tend to lead to a stagnation in the number of House seats held by women, while elections favoring Democrats see the percent of women -- and especially of pro-choice women -- edge up.
"Women in Congress are disproportionately Democrats, so big Democratic years tend to be good for women candidates," Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, noted in 2008 after a Democratic headwind boosted the number of House women to a new record.
Today, fewer than a quarter of women in the House are Republicans.
As the GOP gears up for an ambitious election cycle, that picture seems unlikely to shift. "There appears to be a dearth of GOP women running in some of the most competitive House races across the country," CQ-Roll Call reported in mid-March.
Cultural cues also can prove nettlesome for the GOP, as a Republican fundraising push in the wake of the health-care vote is taking as its slogan "No more Madam Speaker" -- awkwardly suggesting that the party has no women it might even consider to lead the House.
The women's groups also might find mobilizing women directly against the president a challenge. Women overall hold a more positive view of the president than do men, according to an analysis of Washington Post polling data. Obama's approval rating has fallen 16 points among women since February 2009 to 56 percent; among men, it's dipped 19 points over that time period and now stands at 45 percent.
And Democratic women continue to hold somewhat more positive views of the president than do Democratic men -- a striking 89 percent of Democratic women approve, compared with 81 percent of Democratic men -- though approval has dropped among both groups since he took office.
Washington Post polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this story.
March 22, 2010; 6:10 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Health Care
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