Despite exceptions, new Congress is the most pro-choice ever

February 28, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

There she was: Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democratic congresswoman by way of a Baltimore political family, holding the gavel as the nation's first female speaker of the House of Representatives.

Everyone remarked on that historic first. Some even noticed that Ms. Pelosi's plum dress was a nod to the preferred color of the suffragist movement that fought for a half-century before finally securing women the right to vote.

But almost nobody reported this fact: Ms. Pelosi's House majority, combined with her counterpart Harry Reid's Senate coalition, together form the most pro-choice Congress in the history of the Republic.

Republicans controlled the House between 1994 and 2006, and the Senate for most of that same 12-year period. Before 1994, Democratic majorities were less pro-choice than today, because the Democrats' conservative Southern delegation was a larger component of the party's majority coalition.

So when the 2006 elections brought a net of 23 new pro-choice representatives and three senators, the Democratic majority of the 110th Congress eclipsed the 109 congresses before that in its overall support for reproductive freedom.

These new, pro-choice Democratic freshmen are no monolith. In the House, they range from Harry E. Mitchell in central Arizona to Kirsten Gillibrand of upstate New York.

Mr. Mitchell, 56, is a former state senator and party chair who knocked Republican J.D. Hayworth from the suburban Phoenix district Mr. Hayworth first won as a member of Newt Gingrich's famed "Republican revolution" class of 1994. Ms. Gillibrand, a 40-year-old former Clinton administration attorney, unseated four-term Republican John E. Sweeney. Both Mr. Hayworth and Mr. Sweeney boasted solidly pro-life voting records.

Three new Democratic senators - Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio - defeated pro-life Republican incumbents in states that President Bush carried in 2000 and 2004. A fourth, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, replaced a fellow Democrat with a mixed record on choice.

According to a post-election memo issued by NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan, thousands of activists were mobilized in all four states, including more than 3,000 voters in Montana, where Mr. Tester won by just 2,847 votes.

Elsewhere, pro-choice forces won 2006 ballot victories in California, Oregon and South Dakota. No incumbent Democratic governors lost, but Michigan's Jennifer M. Granholm, who some thought might be in jeopardy, won a second term on the strength of a hard-hitting, late-campaign ad touting her support for a woman's right to choose.

If all of this comes as a bit of surprise, that's understandable. As the 2006 midterm results poured in, national pundits picked selectively through the results in order to focus on pro-life Democrats who won, like Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey or North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler.

Because they replaced pro-life Republicans, victories like Mr. Casey's and Mr. Shuler's mattered to the partisan control of Congress but not the chamber-wide level of support for reproductive choice in the House or Senate. "Conservatives tend to highlight the conservatism in the new class as a sign that Democrats are essentially ceding ground to the right on issues like gun control and abortion," reported The New York Times.

Very selective "highlighting," indeed, was the only possible way to depict results that led to the replacement of a pro-life, Republican majority with the most pro-choice Democratic majority in Congress as if Democrats were caving in their support for reproductive freedom.

Turning to the 2008 presidential race, EMILY's List, an organization whose sole mission is to elect pro-choice, Democratic women, did not hesitate to jump on board a candidacy that is tailor-made to that mission: Hillary Clinton's. The group's considerable resources will provide Mrs. Clinton's campaign millions of foot soldiers and small donors.

"Women are really moving up at all levels, which really sets the stage for the big enchilada, and we're doing all we can to help Hillary Clinton become the first woman president," Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, said shortly after the Clinton endorsement was announced. "We have a full plate for 2008."

Should Mrs. Clinton - or, for that matter, any other Democratic contender - capture the White House next year and Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid hold their respective majorities on Capitol Hill, the most pro-choice Congress in American history would become the most pro-choice government in American history.

If Mrs. Clinton wins, maybe she'll wear plum, too.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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