An insider's view of the Senate's crucial vote to outlaw partial-birth abortion

New Hampshire's senior Senator Bob Smith has been fighting for pro-life causes in Washington, D.C., since being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984. He is one of the few legislators to have a 100% Right-to-Life voting record during his fourteen years in Congress. A Vietnam veteran, he is a strong advocate for rebuilding the United States military and is a leading domestic budget-cutter in Congress. Senator Smith, who authored the original Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, is considering a run for the White House in 2000. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Brett Decker.

Decker: The United States Congress has twice passed the ban on Partial-birth abortions and twice President Clinton has vetoed the ban. The Senate will bring the legislation up for consideration again on Sept. 17 or 18. Is there any indication that the chamber is any closer to the sixty-seven votes needed for a veto-proof majority?

Smith: It's still a long shot. As you correctly said, we have passed it a couple times and the president vetoed it. Don't forget that the House has overridden it twice, but last time we were three votes short in the Senate with only sixty-four. It is very frustrating that such a terrible procedure remains legal in this country because of only three votes. It is particularly frustrating for me because we have come so far since I started all this about three years ago. After this procedure was brought to my attention, I researched it and talked to a nurse who had assisted is these abortions and expressed what a grotesque process it is. To bring home the harsh reality of this tragedy, I took the medical charts out on the Senate floor showing the partial birth abortion process step-by-step. I was criticized by everyone, particularly by many in the national media. First time around, I conducted the floor debate almost alone. Sadly, many would rather close their eyes to the violence.

Has the graphic nature of the debate overthis procedure helped or hurt the larger pro-life movement?

Clearly I know it has helped the pro-life movement by forcing people to come to grips with what abortion actually is — the killing of a helpless child. This has forced some senators such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who say they are in favor of abortion but are against partial-birth abortion, to think about the consequences of what they call a woman's choice. Pat Moynihan (who is Catholic, by the way) voted with us on this one and said repeatedly that partial-birth abortion is infanticide. The graphic charts show them that this is really a child, not a choice. Because what's the difference between a child in the birth canal, struggling to breathe and survive, and that same child two days before early birth is induced. It is still obviously a child in both instances. Many congressmen have been forced to come to grips for the first time with the fact that abortion is wrong. Without a doubt, I think the debate on partial-birth abortion has caused the realization that if it is a child when it's executed through partial-birth abortion, it's a child the day before and a month before and two months before, and so on. It is true that mothers can get another form of abortion if this procedure is outlawed, but it is important to realize that many abortions will be prevented because more people understand what this really is.

You mentioned that such pro-abortion politicians as Sen. Moynihan have voted against partial-birth and that only three more votes are needed to override the president's veto. Looking over the list of senators who voted against the ban, it stands out that ten of them are Catholics (and two others are Eastern Orthodox). Is there any evidence that any of these Catholics will switch votes in favor of outlawing partial-birth abortions?

It doesn't look good, but I don't know the answer because I can't read anyone's conscience. We don't have any commitments at this point, but I'm hoping and working and praying that we'll get three more votes. I never give up. It is frustrating when Catholics, or those who say they are Catholic, refuse to vote against something as barbaric as this. I have lobbied a lot of senators personally, a lot of Catholic senators, and we have built momentum and secured votes we didn't have the first time around. But, even though we have sizable, or substantial majorities in both houses, we are three votes away from saving God knows how many lives.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops have been outspoken on partial-birth abortion and their postcard campaign on behalf of the bill received considerable media coverage. What impact do you think the bishops had on the debate?

Every last bit of assistance on this campaign helps. There were thousands of those postcards that flooded into every congressional office. I got thousands of them like all the other offices. I'm sure it solidified some of the Catholic votes in Congress. The bishops did a great job organizing such a huge campaign, but what is really important is what a difference the bishops can make when they are involved politically. The bishops had an impact on a few votes when all we needed was a few votes. Several Catholics changed their vote late in the game…

For example, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) reluctantly changed his vote afterbeing publicly chastised by Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls and so did Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) after some pressure…

Yes, I commend that. It was the right thing to do — the moral thing to do. Unfortunately, we still came up short but that is not their [the bishops’] fault. Unfortunately, four Republican senators also voted against the ban: Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, and John Chafee of Rhode Island. We could stop this horrible procedure if we could only get all the Republicans to support the ban. As you know, I called for the total defunding of any candidate in the Republican party who takes a stand in favor of this partial-birth procedure. Only three or four of us spoke out for such defunding though.

Some Republicans in the leadership do not want Bill Clinton to leave office before his term expires because they think a president weakened by scandal will be forced to cooperate with the Republican majority. Do you think there is any chance the president would sign this popularabortion ban this time around to avoid a messy conflict and regain some sympathy with voters?

It's worth directing prayers for him so that his heart will change, that's for sure, but I wouldn't bet money that it's going to happen. I hope the president changes his mind, but he's pretty well in the pocket of all the abortionists and pro-abortion radicals who have drawn the line on this and forbidden his defection. I think our best hope is to try to change votes in the Senate. I don't think the president is going to change.

Many pro-abortion politicians have voted forthe partial-birth abortion ban and used it as a shield to neutralize their pro-life opposition…

Pro-life voters are smart enough to see through that ploy and vote for someone else. But are some candidates using this? Sure they are, but they are not pro-life simply by saying they are against such an obviously monstrous procedure. Anybody that uses this vote for cover is not pro-life, but maybe some will vote our way again on other pro-life legislation after waking up on this issue.

With all the publicity and focus on this specific procedure, has any energy been diverted from other anti-abortion initiatives?

No, this has helped the pro-life movement grow. From my own perspective this year, I have sponsored the Human Life Constitutional Amendment and the Human Life Bill which underscores that we all have a right to life and that life begins at conception. There is also the Child Custody Protection Act which forbids transporting teens across state lines to get abortions. I think the focus on partial-birth abortion has energized the movement, not diverted energy from it. The goal is to save lives, and this is not done by getting in people's faces, but by getting in their hearts. We got to people's hearts with the partial-birth issue.

Switching gears a bit, supporters of homosexual activist James Hormel have recently waxed optimistic about him being confirmed as U. S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. You, along with Senators James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) and Tim Hutchinson (R.-Ark.), have been holding up his nomination all of this year under significant political pressure to surrender. Is the resolve to stop Hormel's appointment fading?

I don't see it fading, but you can never say never in the Senate. There are two ways to put a hold on nominees in the Senate: one way is to be vocal and make a lot of noise; the other way is to oppose the nomination secretly. I do not want James Hormel to be Ambassador to Luxembourg, period. I'm not looking for public exposure on it, but I'm not going to hide from it. I've gotten letters from Hormel and correspondence from other people basically calling me every name in the book: a bigot, a gay-basher, I get it all. But there are a lot of reasons why this man should not be approved. There is a tape that shows Hormel, who is sitting as a commentator for a gay rights parade in San Francisco, laughing and encouraging male drag queens who are dressed up as Catholic nuns in habits ridiculing the Catholic religion. Now I have a letter from Hormel denying it, claiming he has never mocked anybody in his whole life. It is pure garbage because there he is on tape mocking the Catholic Church and making fun of nuns because of their religion. Luxembourg is a 95% Catholic country. This guy doesn't deserve to go there as a representative of this great country.

Are there other concerns about him?

Yes, he funded the production of a two-hour documentary tape called It's Elementary which promotes the cause of homosexuality to second and third graders. It gives the impression that anyone who is opposed to homosexuality is a bigot for whatever reason. Even if you oppose it on religious grounds because you are a Catholic, a born-again Christian, a Jew, whatever, it doesn't matter — the tape tells these kids you are a bigot. It also takes a shot at me and ridicules my positions in there. But manipulating little children for their agenda, that's really wrong. It is outrageous and I don't think the man behind it is qualified to be ambassador to any place, let alone Luxembourg. I will do anything and everything I can to stop it, including by filibuster, which is really what I'm doing now.

Senator Bob Smith

Personal: Born in Trenton, New Jersey; Age 57; BA, Lafayette College, 1965; Married to Mary Jo Smith; three children; residents of Tuftonboro, New Hampshire.

Background: U.S. Naval Reserves, 1962-65; U.S. Navy (Vietnam), 1965-67; High school teacher/real estate broker, 1975-84; Chairman, Gov. Wentworth School Board in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, 1978-84; Nominated for U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, elected in 1984 and served in House from 1984-90; Elected to U.S. Senate in 1990, reelected in 1996.

Achievements: Leader in the U.S. Senate on pro-life legislation; authored the bill and led U.S. Senate floor debate to ban partial-birth abortions; introduced Human Life Amendment and Human Life Bill in U.S. Senate; led floor debate on the Hyde Amendment in U.S. House; serves on Armed Services, Environment & Public Works, and Government Affairs committees, and is chairman of the Select Ethics committee.

Popular support for private school vouchers increases every year, especially among minority and Catholic families. Do you foresee any movement in Washington on this issue?

I have always been in favor of vouchers. I have sent three children through Catholic high schools. It's a great education because the teachers have values and respect one another and the students. You cannot exorcise values out of education. When you go out of the school system into society, you are not living in a vacuum. You are interacting with people. Without values, without compassion, without any feeling toward God, society doesn't work — either in or out of school. It is pretty obvious we need to bring God to the forefront today more than ever to help us live in the world. So I think promoting opportunity for all parents, with or without the means, to send their children to private schools, Catholic schools, charter schools, and competitive schools is essential. More parents are saying they want values taught in schools and politicians are listening.

The need for values seems to be a particularly poignant issue right now with all of the lurid public discussion about sexual scandals.

I used to be a school teacher and one thing that has not changed about kids is their brutal honesty. Especially the younger ones, they have no qualms about saying exactly what they think. A few days ago, Clinton had a photo-op at an elementary school in Herndon, Va., and it was eye-opening to hear what those kids were saying about him. They were all saying how disgraceful it was what he did to his wife and how bad it was for him to lie to his family and the whole country. The press had to chase around to find one kid who would say Clinton is a good guy. This is highly unusual and very sad. No matter where or when you would go to a school in the past, all you would have to do is ask who the children looked up to or respected most, other than their father or mother, and the majority would always say the president of the United States. It is shocking that they don't say that anymore. This is the damage Bill Clinton has done to our values.

Another fight in Congress is brewing over the projected $18 billion United States contribution to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because of IMF ties to world population control plans. How do you think this will play out?

I'm obviously opposed to any of our money going to fund overseas abortions and population control but once you give it to these international organizations you cannot control what happens to it. But also the collapse of the monetary systems in the Far East and the economic problems in Russia have made American taxpayers feel that they are not getting their money's worth out of these so-called bail-outs. The extreme fluctuations in the market are a result of the nervousness over these economies, but eventually these nations have got to do it for themselves. I talked to a family-farmer out in the Midwest who was against the IMF bailouts and asked who would bail him out if he couldn't pay his mortgage. The answer is nobody, so it is hard to explain to working Americans why they are involuntarily taxed to support programs they don't believe in around the world. After all, we have problems in our own country that overburden our taxpayers: poverty, $5.5 trillion in debt to pay off, you name it. We have made a lot of sacrifices in the world to win World War II, rebuilding it during the Marshall Plan and fighting against Communism during the Cold War. And look at all the tragedies and natural disasters around the world: earthquakes, tornadoes, floods. We are always there helping out. Not wanting to fund world population control and irresponsible governments is nothing to be ashamed of.

You have been to Iowa, the location of the first major presidential nominating caucus, more than any otherpotential Republican presidential candidate. Traveling around the country exploring the possibility of a run forpresident in 2000, what do you try to convey to voters that differentiates you from other conservative aspirants?

There are a lot of conservatives who want to be president. But it is not enough to be president to simply call yourself conservative, to say you are pro-life, and to talk about character. To save this Republic, the person governing must be willing to make the changes that are needed in society. I'm prepared to do it. For example, I would have a litmus test for judges on the Supreme Court, on appellate courts, and on district courts. Judges must be strict constructionists who believe in the Constitution and the fact that there is nothing in the Constitution that allows for abortion. Some of the Reagan and Bush appointees are dead wrong on abortion and that is why Roe v. Wade has not been overturned. 38 million children have died since 1973 because of a Supreme Court decision. There must be an abortion litmus test for judges and I would have one. The integrity of the office of the president must also be restored. There are all kinds of problems in our country today and the president has to have the moral authority to lead. No one is perfect, but you must set an example, both in public and in private. I have heard it said many times that character is doing what's right when nobody's around. We all make mistakes, we're all sinners. That is why we have confession. God understands that and the American people understand that, but we also expect our leaders to live a good life and set a good example. If Mary Jo and I were ever to live in the White House, we would respect the dignity of the office. That is particularly necessary to instill hope and trust in our political institutions among young people.

References to Catholicism are sprinkled into your rhetoric quite frequently. How does your faith as a Catholic guide your political activity?

I lost my father when I was three years old and it was very difficult for us. After my father was killed at the end of World War II — he was a war hero — it was the strong Catholic faith of my grandmother that acted as the glue to keep our family together. I could have gone either way, but she got me involved in the Church. The nuns would pick us up on Wednesdays for catechism, we went to Mass as a family, and I was an altar boy. The lessons you learn from this when you are young stay with you and form you. I was taught love of God and patriotism. I cannot imagine serving in the Navy in Vietnam or doing the job I do here in Washington from an amoral perspective. All the decisions you make in life are related, and your background guides your decisions. I never have understood congressmen who throw morality out the window for political expediency. I have never done that.

I have read that your faith played a strong role in your close reelection to the Senate in 1996.

There is a Convent of the Precious Blood in Manchester, New Hampshire, that played a very personal role. We talked for years and years about the Church because my wife was not Catholic. I never really gave her the hard sell. But whenever there was something serious or she had some special prayer need, she would go to the Convent of the Precious Blood. If she couldn't get there, she would call a friend of ours and ask her to go there and pray for us. During the last week of my reelection campaign, the Clintons and the Gores all came up to New Hampshire and traveled around the state attacking my position on abortion and my involvement in the partial-birth abortion debate. I was really under the gun. My wife went to the convent the night before the election and, unbeknownst to me, made a commitment to God to become a Catholic if this election would turn the other way so I could continue my fight for the right-to-life. On election day, we were heavily predicted to lose and the news anchors kept announcing that I was down in the exit polls, but my wife was very calm about it. She went upstairs to an office in our campaign headquarters and spent five hours on her knees in prayer. When it was all over and it came out that we had won after all the networks had announced that we had lost. Mary Jo came down and told me about what she had done and said we needed to see our friend Father Ed because she was going to become a Catholic. She is a remarkable person.

—Brett Decker