WASHINGTON — The call came in from Rome just as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants were scrambling to round up scarce votes to pass their sweeping health overhaul.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, was on the line for Pelosi, calling to discuss adding strict abortion restrictions to the House bill.
It was just one element of an intensive lobbying effort orchestrated by the nation's Catholic bishops, who have emerged as a formidable force in the health care negotiations. They used their clout with millions of Catholics and worked behind the scenes in Congress to make sure the abortion curbs were included in the legislation — and are now pressing to keep them there.
They don't spend a dime on what is legally defined as lobbying, but lawmakers and insiders recognize that the bishops' voices matter — and they move votes. Representatives for the bishops were in Pelosi's Capitol suite negotiating with top officials for three hours Friday evening as they reached final terms of the agreement. That was just hours after Pelosi, a Catholic abortion rights supporter, took the call from McCarrick.
Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley personally appealed to President Barack Obama about the issue near the church altar at the early September funeral for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Bishops quietly called their congressmen and senators to weigh in.
"The Catholic Church used their power — their clout, if you will — to influence this issue. They had to. It's a basic teaching of the religion," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a leading abortion foe and architect of the health measure's restrictions.
It was Stupak who told Pelosi last Friday that if she wanted a deal on the health bill, she would be well advised to invite the bishops' staff, who were already in his office, to her table.
Pelosi did, and the result was a final measure that — much to the outrage of abortion rights supporters — bars a new government-run insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother being in danger, and prohibits any health plan that receives federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage. If women wanted to purchase abortion coverage through such plans, they would have to buy it separately as a so-called rider on their insurance policies.
The outcome has put Obama and Democratic leaders — already struggling for consensus on the complex and politically tricky health measure — in a tough spot. Democratic abortion foes in the Senate vow they won't support health legislation that omits the strict restrictions approved by the House, while abortion rights champions say they can't possibly vote for a bill that contains them.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church's Washington-based advocacy organization staffed by more than 350 lay people, derives its power in large part from the sheer number of Catholics in the United States — 68 million — but also from the special moral and religious standing of its members. Many are in regular contact with lawmakers, weighing in on issues from immigration policy to benefits for low-income people.