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The Associated Press - Colorado's DeGette Takes National Abortion Role

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Location: Denver, CO

Voters are used to black-and-white political posturing: Democrats want one thing, Republicans another, they tussle in Washington then go home to tell citizens how the opposition is flat-out wrong.

So it's a bit surprising that on health care, one member of Congress who argued with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even the White House was ... Colorado's longest-serving Democrat?

Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver emerged in recent weeks as the House's most vocal defender of abortion rights. She was in late-night negotiations with Democratic leadership. She kept a worn piece of paper in her purse to keep track of votes. She kept a letter signed by 40 Democrats refusing to support an overhaul that restricted access to abortion.

As the health care debate neared its conclusion, DeGette's name was on front pages on the tricky negotiations to pass the bill.

DeGette doesn't usually make headlines. She's a seven-term member from a left-leaning district so safe she seldom attracts serious opposition. But has she become Congress' foremost defender of abortion rights?

"During this whole debate, pro-choice Democrats kept coming up to me and saying, 'Keep fighting! Keep fighting! Keep fighting!' So that's what I did," DeGette said from Washington last week, after the overhaul was signed into law.

Abortion took center stage in the debate when Democratic abortion opponents, led by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, said they wouldn't vote for the plan unless insurance plans getting federal money were barred from covering abortions.

DeGette said the Stupak supporters were so vocal that many of her Democratic colleagues wanted to go along to get the plan through. Abortion-rights supporters feared Stupak's proposal would make abortions much more difficult to get, even when women wanted to use their own money. When they looked for a lawmaker who'd press their point, they went to DeGette.

DeGette said she told party leaders: "With health care bills, you can work with anything once you have a framework. But if you give away choice, you never get it back."

"She was just absolutely steadfast in the position she took," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who negotiated the abortion provisions of the health care overhaul. "There was just no question that we're not going to relent, and she gave voice to that."

It was a sticking point not resolved until hours before the final vote, when Stupak agreed to pull his abortion amendment if the president signed an executive order reiterating that no federal money can be used to pay for abortions.

"Diana DeGette was absolutely critical to keeping that language out," said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List, a nonprofit that backs women Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. "She really was the go-to person for pro-choice women in Congress who wanted to know what the heck to do to stop the Stupak amendment."

It was a battle DeGette had been training for for a long time.

DeGette emerged as an abortion-rights crusader back in Denver. In the early 1990s, violence and screaming matches outside abortion clinics were on the rise. A doctor was killed in 1993 at a Florida clinic.

That year, while serving in a Colorado Legislature ruled by the GOP, DeGette sponsored a bill to separate clinic patients and employees from protesters. The so-called "Bubble Bill" required protesters to stay 8 feet away from patients -- an attempt to reduce confrontations that eventually withstood a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"She was tenacious on that bill," recalled former Colorado Sen. Mike Feeley, a Lakewood Democrat who was in the Legislature at the time. "She knows just when to be nice, knows when to push it hard. Just her technical expertise, I've never seen anything like it."

DeGette took those skills to Washington in 1997. Again in the minority, she didn't seem to mind a fight. She persuaded Congress to lift President George W. Bush's limit on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- twice. The bills, vetoed both times, would have paid for stem cell research on new lines of stem cells derived from human embryos created for fertility treatments.

Abortion opponents don't see much to admire in DeGette's lawmaking.

"To put herself out there as a huge advocate for women, DeGette certainly doesn't speak for all women, or unborn women," said Leslie Hanks, vice president of Colorado Right to Life. "She's been a mouthpiece for the abortion industry."

With Democrats in charge in Washington, DeGette's position might be considered an easier sell. But she doesn't see it that way.

"I tell people, 'I might be in the majority party, but we still don't have a majority pro-choice in Congress'" she said. "We're still playing a lot of defense."

DeGette said her next fight is a bill to reduce unplanned pregnancies, in part by rebuffing federal funding for "abstinence-only" sex education programs. The bill would also devote federal money to raise awareness of emergency contraception, or the morning-after pill.

DeGette said she has other political interests -- especially the environment -- but doesn't mind being known as the Congress' advocate for abortion rights.

"It's been countless hours, but it's one of my top issues," DeGette said.


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