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WASHINGTON—Visitors to Congressman Dan Lipinski’s Capitol Hill office find an assortment of items. A BlackBerry phone sits amid papers on his desk. There’s also an apple, a container of Peter Pan peanut butter, a Diet Pepsi, and a small stack of books including Prayer by the late Daniel P. Coughlin, the first Roman Catholic chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Lipinski’s eclectic office mirrors his politics: The Illinois Democrat, a tall, thin distance runner, favors a higher minimum wage, labor unions, and environmental protections, but he supports building the Keystone XL pipeline and thinks some of his colleagues take the role of government too far. He supports traditional marriage. And he declines to say whom he voted for in the 2012 presidential election.
Lipinski is not the only lawmaker who disagrees with his party on some issues, but one in particular makes him stand out: He’s staunchly pro-life. More than perhaps any other issue, abortion is becoming a litmus test for both parties, and it’s not only a matter of how current lawmakers vote.
Abortion views are determining which party a candidate chooses to represent when running for office, a dynamic Lipinski says is largely responsible for the biggest Democratic minority—57 seats—in decades.
“It’s made clear to people who want to run for office: If you’re pro-life, you’re going to have a hard time in the Democratic primary just based on that issue,” Lipinski told me with some hesitation, as if mindful of not making unnecessary enemies. “If you’re pro-life, why be a Democrat? Why put yourself through that?”
Lipinski, who is in his sixth term, grew up in Chicago as what he calls a “cradle Catholic.” He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and taught at the universities of Notre Dame and Tennessee before he was elected to Congress in 2004. Lipinski says his faith informs his views on abortion, but he also had an example to follow: He replaced his father, Rep. Bill Lipinski, who had served the same district as a pro-life Democrat since 1983.
Some of the biggest Democratic names of the 20th century once carried the pro-life mantle. Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore once were pro-life. Sen. Ted Kennedy, nicknamed the “Lion of the Senate,” was also a pro-life lawmaker who flipped. In 1971 the Catholic Kennedy wrote to a constituent: “When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”
Those views are rarely seen or heard in today’s Democratic Party. In May—exactly two years after a Pennsylvania jury found abortionist Kermit Gosnell guilty of murdering babies born alive—only three Democrats joined Lipinski voting in favor of a ban on abortions at 20 weeks or later in a pregnancy. That’s four of 188 Democrats, down from six when similar legislation passed in 2013.
No Democrat brought up Gosnell’s “house of horrors” during the floor debate, much less acknowledged that the only reason his late-term activity was considered murder is because he dismembered babies outside the womb instead of inside. A November Quinnipiac poll found 55 percent of Democrats support some abortion restrictions and 46 percent support the 20-week ban specifically—yet only 2 percent of House Democrats voted for it.
A November Quinnipiac poll found 55 percent of Democrats support some abortion restrictions and 46 percent support the 20-week ban specifically—yet only 2 percent of House Democrats voted for it.
That’s a big problem for the party, Lipinski told me after walking off the House floor from the vote. Standing in the Speaker’s Lobby, an ornate hallway where lawmakers go to speak with reporters, Lipinski said he tried a last-ditch effort to sway one more colleague to vote for the late-term ban, but to no avail.
“We’re in the worst minority we’ve been in in the House since 1930,” he said with some frustration. “If Democrats are really interested in growing the party … we have to be accepting of pro-life Democrats. Democrats have to wake up to that, or we’re going to permanently be in the minority.”
Lipinski did not come to Congress planning to be the pro-life champion of the Democratic Party. When he arrived in Washington a decade ago, he was one of dozens of Blue Dog Democrats, a group of conservative and moderate members who formed in 1995 after Republicans won control of the House.
The pinnacle of Blue Dog influence came in 2009-2010, when the coalition formed a crucial bloc of the Democratic majority. A subset of that group, led by pro-life Rep. Bart Stupak, threatened to derail the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if it didn’t have an amendment maintaining the long-standing ban on federal abortion funding. They succeeded in passing the amendment, but it went for naught: After Sen. Ted Kennedy died and a Republican took his place, House Democrats had to accept the Senate-passed version of the ACA, which did not include language prohibiting taxpayer-funded abortion.
President Barack Obama won over most pro-life Democrats with his promise to sign an executive order to the same effect. Lipinski called it a fig leaf. He was the only member of the Stupak coalition who voted against the ACA (he says there were additional reasons for his vote). Today he’s the only member of the Stupak coalition still in Congress.
“It wasn’t an issue I planned on stepping up on, being front and center, but circumstances led me to that,” Lipinski said, noting he felt vindicated when a 2014 Government Accountability Office report found more than 1,000 Obamacare plans include abortion coverage—much of it paid for with taxpayer subsidies. “During the healthcare debate, I decided it was important at that time to really stand up and take a strong position.”
Are Lipinski’s pro-life views an issue for the party? I asked Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. She said no. “That’s no problem at all,” she said as she stepped into a waiting SUV in front of the Capitol. “That’s his personal belief.”
Pro-life Democrats may be technically welcome, but the practical effect of the party’s leftward veer on abortion has precipitated swift, drastic change. Only five-plus years after 64 Democrats voted for the Stupak amendment, only three supported a January bill to do the same thing, ensure taxpayers don’t pay for abortions. The two who joined Lipinski: Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, (whom Lipinski says doesn’t vote pro-life on all issues).
“When I came here [in 1991] there were 85 people like me,” Peterson, a Lutheran, told me. “Now there’s two.”
Peterson, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, cited Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House, as an example of a Democrat who abandoned pro-life beliefs. He believes many of his colleagues switched for political reasons: “It was more political trouble for them to be pro-life than to be pro-choice,” he said. “I don’t care. This is what I am, and they’re going to have to put up with me.”
At 48, Lipinski is 22 years younger than Peterson, and 11 years younger than Cuellar, making him the logical last man standing. In 2011 he replaced the retiring Stupak as co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and pro-life groups question whether another Democrat will be left to follow him. They call him a hero for standing up to party leadership.
Lipinski, who has survived numerous primary challenges, said his role is never easy, but it’s gratifying when constituents say thanks: “There are a number of people back home who tell me, ‘I used to be a Democrat, but I’m pro-life, so I can’t vote Democratic anymore. I’ll vote for you, but I won’t call myself a Democrat.’
“It’s a shame that it is that way,” Lipinski said. “The Democratic Party has chased a lot of people out of the party.”
From bill to law
Lipinski is one of many pro-lifers who believe the House-passed 20-week abortion ban is stronger than the bill that would have passed in January if not for a Republican meltdown (see “Ignoring the children,” Feb. 21). Here’s what the legislation adds for any woman seeking a late-term abortion due to rape or incest:
- Informed consent
- Two-day waiting period
- Born-alive infant protection
- Abortionist must ensure woman has received counseling and/or medical attention
- Two abortionists must be present at late-term procedures
- Legal recourse for patient in the event an abortionist does not comply
The legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to come to the floor for debate, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will force a vote. “It’s important for the Senate to have to address this issue,” said Lipinski. “I’m very happy that we have done this in the House … but it’s not an accomplishment until we get it signed into law.” —J.C.D.