Bart Stupak gained national prominence when he forced Democratic leaders in the House to allow a vote on his amendment to the massive health-care overhaul bill (H.R. 3400) that would bar federal taxpayer funding for elective abortions.

Stupak is a Catholic and Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. Elected in 1992 to serve Michigan’s First District (consisting of the state’s upper peninsula and northern counties of the lower peninsula), he is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The amendment was adopted with the support of 176 Republicans and 64 Democrats. It has since become one of the obstacles to advancing the health-care legislation because the abortion-funding ban is stridently opposed by most of the Democratic leadership of Congress and President Obama.

Another unexpected obstacle to the president’s leading legislative priority was the Jan. 19 election of Scott Brown to the Senate seat previously held by Ted Kennedy. Brown, a Republican, supported pro-life legislation as a Massachusetts state senator and promised to be the critical 41st vote to stop the health-care overhaul in Congress.

Stupak spoke with Register correspondent Rich Daly the day after Brown’s election and two days before the annual Right to Life March in Washington, as congressional leaders scrambled to find a way to pass the health-care bill.

Has the pro-life position gained ground in Congress with its prominent role in the ongoing health-care overhaul debate?

It’s the emergence of the Pro-Life Caucus [in Congress], especially the Democrats, along with the [Catholic] bishops playing a more active role. It’s a group that has always been there, but it has taken on greater importance in this Democratic-controlled Congress because a lot of the Catholics that are Democrats are pro-life.

Before it was always looked at as “It’s a right-to-life issue; it’s a right-to-life issue,” but now they are saying, “All right, right to life,” but also, “Where are the Catholic bishops?” So the Catholic aspect of life in the pro-life movement has taken on a greater significance in this Democratic Congress.

What the Catholic Church and bishops have to say carries more weight now in the Democratic Party than before because you have more of us who are Catholics. You have some conservative Catholics who are in Congress, including newcomers like [Reps. Nick] Rahall and [Kathy] Dahlkemper, who are more likely to listen to the Catholic bishops and look for guidance on some of these issues.

Has guidance from the Catholic bishops been important for you personally on pro-life issues?

I’ve always been pro-life, and took care of this on our side [of Congress]. I’ve served for six years as the co-chair of the Pro-Life Caucus, but it is good to see the Catholic Church and the bishops being more active and to have their opinion sought more. Since the Democrats have taken over Congress, the bishops’ opinion has been sought more than they have in the past.

Will pro-life Democrats have an impact on other legislation, in addition to the health-care bill?

Yes. For instance, the Catholic bishops have always said immigration is one of our top issues, and so was health care. So these issues that are important for the bishops, with Democrats in charge, are for many of us seen as issues that need to be addressed. Before they were sort of ignored, but now they are being addressed. Therefore, those groups that have always been there — like the bishops on issues like health care, immigration and opposition to the war in Iraq — their voice suddenly has a higher platform from which to shout.

Do recent polls showing that for the first time a majority of Americans describe themselves as pro-life mean that the congressional leadership needs to reflect that in legislation?

Yes, they need to, but [congressional Democratic leaders] ignored the pro-life issues until the health-care [overhaul legislation was considered] — and then they didn’t listen to us until the last minute. They said, “We realize we have an issue here, but we’ll deal with that one last.” But now I think the Democratic leadership realizes that there is a surprisingly large number of members — not surprising to me — who on pro-life issues are not going to move. When you had 64 [House Democrats supporting a pro-life amendment] that shocked [Democratic leaders]. When you’ve been at this as long as I have and were paying attention, you knew who those members were. But [Democratic leaders] didn’t. Now they know we’re really here, and we’re a force that has to be recognized.

As the leader of pro-life Democrats, have you been approached recently by Democratic leaders to compromise on your amendment to the health-care overhaul that barred federal taxpayer funding for elective abortions?

There have been discussions, but no [bill] language. No one has said, “Hey, if we drop your amendment, can you live with this [other approach]?” We said, “It’s the only bipartisan amendment that’s been passed, and we expect you to keep with it.”

What is your outlook for the approach some leaders have mentioned that would have the House simply pass the Senate version of the health-care overhaul, which does not include a comprehensive ban on taxpayer-funded elective abortions?

It’s not going anywhere. And not just because of the abortion issue. There are so many other problems with it, including how it is paid for, the sweetheart deals for some senators, and the lack of any real insurance reform in there. There are some major differences between the two [House and Senate bills]. House members are not going to go there just because the Senate no longer has 60 votes [to override Republican opposition to the health-care overhaul].

Did you see any impact of the pro-life position on Republican Scott Brown’s victory yesterday in the Massachusetts Senate race, which eliminated the 60th Democratic vote to override Republican opposition in the Senate?

Yes, there was backlash from [Democratic candidate Martha Coakley highlighting her extreme pro-abortion position], and members of Congress from Massachusetts told me the same thing. At the end of the race, all she was saying was “pro-choice, pro-choice, pro-choice.” People in Massachusetts were saying, “Pro-choice has nothing to do with health care.” And that is what all of the polling has shown, including a CNN poll that found 61% of American people believe public funding for abortion should not be part of [the health-care overhaul]. So as [Coakley] was injecting it into the health-care debate, people were saying, “It has no business being there.” It just shows how out of touch [some Democrats] have been with this issue.

Do you see the pro-life position rising in importance in the upcoming mid-term elections?

I do see it rising on the radar. It’s just a matter of in what context you’re talking about it. If this was the stem-cell research issue, more people believe less in the pro-life position than on the issue of public funding for abortion. You just don’t do that, whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice. On stem cells some people see that as not really a pro-life issue because pro-life means coming up with new treatments, even though the pro-life position would be to restrict stem-cell research. So it just depends on what the issue is. But as a general rule, people are getting more socially conscious on the pro-life issue and are tracking more to the right, which has been a trend for the last few years.

Will the Democratic Party move in a more pro-life direction as the public moves there?

I wouldn’t go there yet. They are more aware of it. This Stupak amendment hit a nerve with them. I don’t think they judged the depth of the pro-life movement and the pro-life response within the [Democratic] caucus. It’s been very interesting. They always knew pro-life Democratic members were there. I wouldn’t say we were ignored, but we never posed a threat to derail legislation. Before, you had President [George W.] Bush, so when pro-life members of Congress did something, you had a president who would sign it.  Now, when President Obama comes in, who is not a pro-life president, [pro-abortion Democratic leaders] thought, “We’ve got this cluster of pro-life people here, but they can’t affect us because we have a president who will not veto the [pro-abortion] legislation.” President Bush could always veto legislation if it was not pro-life, and it was sent back to Congress. But now we have a president who would not veto [pro-abortion legislation], and we do have serious legislation. So I don’t think they correctly judged the depth of the pro-life position in Congress. Members of Congress didn’t just [take a pro-life position] for political expediency. They felt committed to the issue, and that’s how they voted. What was surprising to [Democratic leaders] was that members of Congress would do that.

Do pro-lifers who come to the annual March for Life have any impact in the halls of Congress?

Yes. In the last year, and with the march on Friday, the life issues are front and center, and the health care [overhaul] is still an ongoing matter. The House had a chance to vote on [barring public funding of abortion], but the Senate never did because [Democratic leaders] tabled the motion. Because health care is the hot issue, the life issue is the hot issue. So [March for Life] attendees are going to find a very interesting time when they come to Washington and visit offices [of their congressional representatives]. There is an awareness of what’s going on that hasn’t been there in a while, especially on the Democratic side.

Rich Daly writes from Washington.