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Abortion Issue Rattles House Democrats Amid Reform Talks

March 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Democratic Party faced a tough week in Congress over party divisions over abortion language in health care reform legislation and ethical inquiries in the Empire State. Ray Suarez reports.
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JIM LEHRER: First: a frustrating week for Democrats in Washington and elsewhere.

Ray Suarez has our report.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been a week when Democrats seemed bedeviled in their efforts to advance their agenda — topping that agenda, President Obama’s drive to put health care firmly back on the to-do list.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform.

RAY SUAREZ: But Democratic leaders find themselves confronting an issue they thought they had put to rest: abortion. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted yesterday the bill passed by the Senate and heading for the House wouldn’t let taxpayer dollars pay for abortions.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif, speaker of the house: There is no federally-funded abortion. That is the law of the land. It is not changed in this bill. There is no change in the access to abortion, no more or no less. It is abortion-neutral, in terms of access or diminution of access.

RAY SUAREZ: Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak said, Pelosi is simply wrong, and he warned he and 11 other members will vote no.

REP. BART STUPAK, D-Mich., We will not compromise that principle or belief. There a number of us who will not go down there. We were just asking for the current law.

RAY SUAREZ: The Democrats’ health care message was also hurt by ethics woes surrounding two New York congressmen. The first involves 20-term veteran Charles Rangel, who temporarily stepped down as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL, D-N.Y.,House Ways and Means Committee Chairman: I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence, until such time as the Ethics Committee completes its work.

RAY SUAREZ: The House Ethics Committee is investigating Rangel over hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreported assets and income, and over his use of rent-controlled apartments in New York City.

And, last Friday, the committee admonished Rangel for accepting Caribbean trips financed by private businesses. And today came word that freshman New York Democrat Eric Massa will resign Monday. He had already announced he would not seek reelection, citing health reasons.

REP. ERIC MASSA, D-N.Y.: Now, I’m a direct, salty kind of guy, and I run at 100 miles an hour. And my doctors have now clearly told me I can no longer do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Massa didn’t directly address a male staffer’s complaint that the congressman made unwanted advances.

House Republican Leader John Boehner said the ethical issues add to doubts about Democratic leadership.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, house minority leader: It looks like chaos on the other side of the aisle.

RAY SUAREZ: But Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez dismissed the criticism.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ, D-Ill.: I mean, we all know how to walk and chew gum at the same time here. If these things were to paralyze our caucus, then I think there would be evidence of that. But all I see is energy and vigor and discussion and debate, and trying to find a way to provide the American men and women the health care that they so deserve.

RAY SUAREZ: And others, including Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp, said scandals can hurt everyone.

REP. ZACH WAMP, R-Tenn.: So, these ethical lapses on both sides have really cost the Congress a lot of credibility, anyone in elected office. So, I hate it for all of us that we seem to continue to slip down the quicksand and not address the country’s problems.

RAY SUAREZ: The ethical cloud hanging over New York Democrats extended beyond Washington this week, with the governor, David Paterson, facing scrutiny in two separate scandals. State investigators are looking into whether he intervened in a domestic violence case to help a top aide.

And the state’s Public Integrity Commission said Wednesday Paterson broke ethics rules by soliciting the New York Yankees for free World Series tickets.

Back in Washington, the White House faced distractions of its own, in the form of reports on the status of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Press reports suggest Emanuel is the voice of reason in the administration, and that the president would be better off if he followed Emanuel’s advice more often.