Even as lawmakers passed the historic health care reform bill, the US political hot potato of abortion, which tends to rear its head in election years, stole the limelight and stoked passions.
Before Congress voted by 219 voices -- including those of several pro-life Democrats -- to 212 to pass health care reform, Republican lawmakers pushed abortion to center stage in an attempt to kill the bill by continuing to debate it.
AdvertisementAnd when prominent pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak rose to explain why he changed his vote in favor of the bill, a Republican congressman dramatically shouted "baby killer" from the rear of the wood-paneled hall on Capitol Hill.
Analysts and political watchers said the drama and name-calling might be a taste of things to come in the run-up to Congressional elections in the autumn.
"The Republicans raised the abortion issue to embarrass the pro-life Democrats and to mobilize pro-life voters," John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Ohio, told AFP.
"The Republicans will raise the issue between now and the election, and it will be interesting to see how much of an effect it will have in close contests in the fall."
Americans will vote in November for at least 36 of 100 Senators, and for all of the seats in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic Party currently has a majority.
Michael Cromartie, vice president of conservative think-tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center, speculated that Stupak and the other pro-life Democrats who threw their lot in with health care reform had come under intense pressure to vote for the bill.
"Stupak and his followers could have brought down this whole thing. So the screws were tightened... either from the White House or his own district," Cromartie said.
Stupak, who last year co-sponsored a bipartisan amendment to the health care bill passed by the House of Representatives that restricted federal funding for abortions in the United States, says on his website that he voted for health care reform after "intense negotiations" with President Barack Obama.
Those negotiations led to a pledge from the president that he would sign an executive order barring taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for health plans that cover abortion. The executive order is due to be inked on Tuesday.
But some are calling the executive order "a fig leaf that gave the pro-life Democrats a way to say their concerns about abortion were satisfied" before they voted for the bill, said Dotty Lynch, who teaches political communication at American University in Washington.
"Democratic members of Congress who are strong on the abortion issue tend to be from districts with a strong right-to-life movement. If they go against their constituents, they might well lose their seat in November," she said.
A recent poll conducted by Gallup showed 45 percent of Americans wanted their Congressman to vote in favor of the bill that was approved Sunday and 48 percent wanted their representative to vote against it.
That said, abortion is really not that big an issue for voters, the pundits said.
"Every election, we have the question 'which subject are you most concerned about' and abortion is always at the bottom," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and professor at the University of Virginia.
"Abortion is highly important to a small segment of people, but to the average American, it's not important," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, which recently conducted a poll to gauge why Americans supported or opposed health care reform.
The poll asked people opposed to health care reforms to say in their own words why they didn't like the bill, and "only a small percent mentioned abortion at all as a reason they opposed it," Newport told AFP.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution think-tank said abortion "hasn't been a cutting-edge issue in elective politics for some years and I doubt it will become one again."
So in the run-up to the elections in November, Republicans will keep the abortion debate alive but will focus more on "reminding people why they don't like the health care bill," while Democrats will "try to remind people of the bill's benefits," said Green.
A Supreme Court decision in 1973 gave the United States some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the world -- and galvanized opposition groups into action against it.
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