At­est for pro-life Democrats

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

Near the top of the new Demo­cratic con­gres­sional ma­jor­ity’s agenda is pas­sage of fed­eral em­bry­onic stem cell re­search leg­is­la­tion ve­toed last year by Pres­i­dent Bush, a mea­sure that will an­swer a ma­jor ques­tion. There is no doubt the new bill will pass both houses of Congress. What re­mains in doubt are the votes to be cast by newly elected Democrats who cam­paigned as pro-life ad­vo­cates, par­tic­u­larly Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

Out­side the bound­aries of his state of Penn­syl­va­nia, Mr. Casey is best known as the son of the Demo­crat most revered in the pro-life move­ment: the late Gov. Robert Casey. De­nied the podium at the 1992 Demo­cratic na­tional con­ven­tion be­cause of anti-abor­tion views, the elder Mr. Casey planned a se­ri­ous in­de­pen­dent cam­paign for pres­i­dent be­fore be­ing stopped by poor health. But will the son, less ar­dent a pro-lifer than the fa­ther, vote against the stem cell re­search bill as he once promised dur­ing the cam­paign? Will seven self-de­scribed pro-life Democrats newly elected to the House do the same?

Mr. Casey’s vote may de­ter­mine whether Mr. Bush’s sec­ond veto is over­rid­den by the Se­nate. The House will prob­a­bly sus­tain a veto, with or with­out help from the seven Democrats. But apart from the stem cell bill, at stake is whether pro-lif­ers have any place in to­day’s Demo­cratic Party. Cer­tainly, that small frac­tion will be un­der in­tense pres­sure from party lead­ers.

Mr. Casey won a na­tion­ally spot­lighted con­test, de­feat­ing em­i­nent Repub­li­can con­ser­va­tive Sen. Rick San­to­rum. He cut into Mr. San­to­rum’s con­ser­va­tive base by win­ning 36 per­cent of the state’s hard pro-life vote. The only recorded state­ment by Mr. Casey on stem cell re­search came in an in­ter­view on the Catholic web­site Ig­natiusIn­ on July 29, 2005: “I am and I have al­ways been pro-life. I sup­port the cur­rent [Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion] pol­icy on em­bry­onic stem cell re­search and would op­pose the Cas­tle bill to ex­pand fed­eral sup­port of em­bry­onic stem cell re­search.”

That re­ferred to the bill spon­sored by Repub­li­can Rep. Mike Cas­tle of Delaware that died in 2006 when the House sus­tained Mr. Bush’s veto. But a new ver­sion is likely to be con­sid­ered now in the Se­nate, where a sup­porter — then Ma­jor­ity Leader Bill Frist — con­ceded in a private ses­sion last year that the Cas­tle bill was flawed and must be rewrit­ten.

So, would Mr. Casey op­pose any leg­is­la­tion that au­tho­rizes fed­er­ally fi­nanced stem cell re­search on “left over” em­bryos from in-vitro fer­til­iza­tion clin­ics, as the Cas­tle bill did? Casey the younger plays his cards close to his vest, and my ef­forts to get a com­mit­ment one way or an­other from the new sen­a­tor or an aide were un­avail­ing.

This is the arith­metic in the Se­nate, where a ve­toed bill will go first. It would take 33 sen­a­tors to sus­tain a Bush veto, if ail­ing Demo­cratic Sen. Tim John­son (S.D.) is un­able to vote. Of the 36 Repub­li­cans who voted against the Cas­tle bill, five were de­feated for re-elec­tion: Mr. San­to­rum, Ge­orge Allen in Vir­ginia, Con­rad Burns in Mon­tana, Mike DeWine in Ohio and James Tal­ent in Mis­souri. Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) was the only Se­nate Demo­crat who voted no last year, and that means one more Demo­crat would be needed this year. Mr. Casey’s vote could be cen­tral.

The House sus­tained last year’s veto by a 50-vote mar­gin. Thir­teen of those mem­bers were de­feated in Novem­ber. So, even if there are Repub­li­can de­fec­tions, the bur­den will not fall on seven avowedly pro­life Democrats newly elected to the House: Heath Shuler (N.C.), Char­lie Wil­son (Ohio), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Baron Hill (Ind.), Ja­son Alt­mire (Pa.) and Chris Car­ney (Pa.).

With Speaker Nancy Pelosi putting this leg­is­la­tion on her 100hour list, th­ese pro-life House Democrats, nev­er­the­less, will be un­der in­tense pres­sure, as will Mr. Nelson, Sen. Jon Tester, a pro-lifer who de­feated Burns in Mon­tana last year, and Mr. Casey.

Mr. Casey was em­braced by pro-choice Democrats — led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, chair­man of the Demo­cratic Sen­a­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, and Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. EdRen­dell, as the best bet against Mr. San­to­rum. But they may not have bar­gained on Mr. Casey op­pos­ing them on the cen- tral party is­sue of stem cell re­search. The ques­tion of how much of a pro-lifer Mr. Casey is or can be in the 21st-cen­tury Demo­cratic Party may be an­swered soon.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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