Abortion Access in House Bill Drives Massachusetts Race to Replace Kennedy


AP  (AP )

What would Teddy do?

Few U.S. senators took stronger positions on universal health care and a woman's right to have an abortion than the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Now two of the leading Democratic candidates to replace the "Lion of the Senate," who died of brain cancer in August, are battling over who is better suited to wear his mantle. And they are cherry-picking his platform to suit themselves as they battle for their party's nomination to run for senator from Massachusetts.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley says she would not support a bill that excludes federal funding for abortion -- even if her vote were the pivotal 60th needed to pass the Senate version of the bill. Her opponent, Rep. Michael Capuano, says he voted for the the House bill, which restricts abortion funding, in order to see it pass -- although he acknowledges he could vote against it if the final legislation includes such a provision.  

Coakley says Capuano is sacrificing one constitutional right for another, while Capuano says Coakley's position undermines the sweeping legislation to which Kennedy devoted his career.

"Martha is firmly in support of health care reform and believes in a strong public option," Coakley Communications Director Alex Zaroulis told FoxNews.com. "However, she was very disturbed that the House adopted the Stupak-Pitts Amendment that would deny millions of women access to reproductive services.

"The inclusion of this amendment violates the very intent of health care reform, which is meant to guarantee quality affordable health care coverage for everyone," Zaroulis added.

But Capuano says that it's easy for Coakley to make such grandiose statements, because she will never have to eat her words. 

"If she had her way, health care reform would be dead," Capuano told FoxNews.com.

One week ago, in an effort to appease party conservatives, Democrats included an amendment authored by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., that would toughen restrictions on federal funding for abortions. Stupak's measure would prohibit women who opt for the government-sponsored insurance exchange from using coverage for abortion services. 

Capuano said he opposes any limits on coverage for women's reproductive services, but he voted for the overall bill that passed the House 220-215  because to do otherwise would undermine the legislation Kennedy spent his life trying to enact.

The six-term congressman told FoxNews.com that he will do everything he can to remove the provision before it reaches President Obama's desk, but he did not indicate how he would vote if the measure remains in a House-Senate compromise.

"We'll see what the bill says," he said. "I would tend to vote against it" if it restricted abortion funding.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Thursday that she will throw her support behind Capuano, saying he has a "proven record of standing up for progressive values and what he believes is right."  She called Capuano's vote on the House health care bill "courageous."

Coakley, Capuano, Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca and City Year co-founder Alan Khazei are all vying for the Democratic nomination to run in next year's special election to replace Kennedy, a nomination that most expect will lead to a November victory in dark blue Massachusetts. 

Capuano noted that every pro-choice member of the House voted in favor of the bill, including Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.

"I would like to think Senator Kennedy would have voted the same way," he said. "I don't think Patrick Kennedy would have voted any other way than his father would have."

Capuano told supporters at a rally on Monday that no legislation is perfect, and that striking down a bill that provides coverage for 36 million uninsured over one issue is not pragmatic.

"I have never once, or almost never, voted on a major piece of legislation that was all good or all bad,'' he told supporters. "Do you think that when they voted on Medicare that it was a perfect bill? Or Social Security? Or the Civil Rights Act? Every one of those bills was major progress with flaws in the bill."  The primary will be held on Dec. 8.  

Seizing upon the friction between his opponents, Pagliuca released a television ad late Wednesday, criticizing both Coakley and Capuano for indicating they would not support the bill if it includes the House's ban on funding abortion.

"Two of my opponents for the U.S. Senate are putting this landmark legislation at risk," Pagliuca says in the ad. "The next senator from Massachusetts represents a vital 60th vote to provide health care to over 30 million Americans who don't have it, and to help lower spiraling health care costs."

Elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg said "it's easier for Coakley to draw a line in the sand" because she does not have to cast an actual vote.

"Tactically, she has the easier case, while Capuano is in a more difficult position because he has to explain" his vote, he said.

But, Rothenberg added, "People for whom (abortion funding) is a symbolic issue, it probably will devalue some of Capuano's explanation."

Rothenberg said he doesn't believe the abortion provision will become the defining issue for voters on Dec. 8. "It is the topic du jour because abortion and health care is the topic de jour nationally," he said.

Passing topic or not, it may not hurt Coakley to bring it up. A Suffolk University poll released Thursday found that 44 percent of people polled believe Coakley will win the Democratic primary.

Seventeen percent said they believe Pagliuca will win, 16 percent bet on Capuano and 3 percent favored City Year co-founder Alan Khazei. Twenty percent were undecided.

In the Republican race, 45 percent said they believe state Sen. Scott Brown will win, while 7 percent are betting on businessman Jack E. Robinson and 47 percent are undecided.

The survey, conducted Nov. 4-8, polled 600 Massachusetts residents and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.