What the 112th Congress Faces

Prospects and promises of the 112th Congress from a Catholic perspective.

WASHINGTON — Catholic advocacy groups expect the new Congress that convened Jan. 5 to grapple with many of the same issues that dominated the last two years: health care, abortion and government spending. But the new strength of Republicans could affect both the direction of debates on those issues and allow greater input by some Catholic groups.

Although the Senate remains under Democratic control, the flip of the House of Representatives to a Republican majority resulted in avowed pro-life politicians ascending to leadership positions throughout that chamber, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic. Boehner and other pro-life Catholics have telegraphed their intentions to roll back the numerous ways the previous Democrat-dominated Congress and the Obama administration have expanded taxpayer funding for abortion domestically and overseas.

“Boehner’s made it clear he comes from strong Catholic roots, and he shows no compromise on the issues critical to that” faith, said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

Those pro-life efforts could include legislating to block implementation of President Obama’s executive order that allowed federal taxpayer funding of overseas abortion providers, the provision of federal funding for U.S. abortion provider Planned Parenthood and a push by Democratic leaders to allow members of the military to obtain on-base abortions.

However, the focus of Republicans’ pro-life efforts is likely to be part of their overall initiative to repeal the health-care reform bill passed last year, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As its provisions begin to come into effect, that law will allow taxpayers to fund elective abortions, according to pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The Obama administration seems to have the goal of pushing for taxpayer funding of abortion in every area that they can,” said John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, about the health-care law and other abortion initiatives in the last two years.

Concerns about the law’s abortion-funding potential even led Obama to issue an executive order, which he or any future president could rescind at any time without congressional approval, stating that the law was not intended to provide public funding of abortion. His action was sufficient to swing a bloc of self-described pro-life Democrats in the House to provide the bare margin of votes for the massive health-care measure to pass. But the pro-life Democrats’ votes in favor of the health-care law are credited by many poll watchers with allowing Republican pro-life candidates to defeat many of them.

Now entering Congress, those pro-life Republicans are expected to push for repeal of the health-care law or, alternatively, support measures to permanently bar the use of public funds for elective abortions, according to Catholic advocates.

“If there was one clarion call in the health-care debate — and maybe we can’t all agree on the other issues with it — we can all agree that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for abortions,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, a national Catholic advocacy group.

Burch expects the Republican-controlled House to be more receptive to the pro-life messages of his and other Catholic groups than the previous body. It’s a view echoed by other Catholic advocates.

Government funding of abortion “is a key focus on the minds of a lot of voters and elected officials,” said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “Votes on this issue will be important, even if such efforts do not pass the Senate or get signed by the president, because such votes will provide a groundwork for public education and for the elections of 2012.”

Conscience Protection

Other health-care fights are expected over efforts by the USCCB to protect the conscience rights of Catholic health-care workers and facilities, which they saw the health-care law as also undermining. Regulators will interpret whether the general language of the law will require Catholic hospitals and physicians to provide abortions, abortifacient contraceptives or euthanasia-like practices. But Catholic advocates worry that the Obama administration has already telegraphed its intentions on those issues by deciding to review strong protections for the religious beliefs of health-care workers enacted by the administration of President George W. Bush.

“There’s a reason why the conscience protections were left vague in the [health-care] law,” said Brehany about what is seen as an ongoing effort to undermine conscience protections.

The new Congress also is expected to grapple with a ballooning federal debt, which could produce spending cuts, tax increases or some combination of the two. The related funding questions carry critical implications for Catholics and every other American, Burch said, because of the long-term impact of ever-increasing deficit spending on future generations.

“Catholics need to stay very engaged and be as involved as possible with all of these major issues,” Burch said.

Other congressional initiatives with a direct impact on core Catholic beliefs include those that affect human rights overseas. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the new chairman of the Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Subcommittee, told the Register that he plans to make international abuses of human rights a key priority. One of the reasons Smith added the phrase “Human Rights” to the subcommittee’s title was to reflect his planned focus on human-rights abuses in China, which marked the 30th anniversary of its one-child policy last summer. Unlike the Obama administration, which largely ignored the inglorious occasion, Smith rallied victims of the Chinese government’s policy of forced abortions and sterilizations at the Capitol Building to draw attention to the issue.

Smith plans to buck his own party’s leadership, if needed, and attempt to tie any future economic links with China, such as its most-favored-nation trading partner status, to concrete plans to improve its human-rights record.

“This is a global tragedy,” Smith said about the policy that results in millions of forced abortions every year.

Archbishop Dolan

The members of the new Congress also may hear from a new Catholic advocate. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was elected USCCB president in late 2010 to succeed Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

Although there is a daunting list of issues on the congressional agenda that could strongly impact core Catholic principles, Donohue said, Archbishop Dolan is among the best Church leaders at appealing to federal legislators.

Said Donohue, “We have a real need right now for someone like this: brilliant, courageous and engaging.”

Rich Daly writes from Washington, D.C.