Even before she took over as Speaker, Pelosi had maintained close relations with Catholic women's religious organizations. They shared not only the same faith but often also the same politics. Catholic activists would meet at least weekly with members of her office. They worked together on issues such as support for the uninsured, child nutrition, immigration, and expanding health coverage for poor children. Those ties were about to become pivotal.
A week before the vote [on comprehensive health legislation], it had all come down to a fierce, intraparty dispute over language limiting federal funding of abortion. Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat from Michigan, publicly backed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he and at least 40 of his supporters would vote down a Senate bill that did not contain the stronger House language blocking public abortion funding.
In response, 40 abortion-rights Democrats, led by Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, signed a letter pledging to vote down any legislation that further restricted a woman's right to choose. For the speaker, it appeared to be a cul-de-sac.
Enter the nuns. In a decisive move, Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, and Sister Simone Campbell, representing NETWORK, a social-justice lobby for Catholic churchwomen, said publicly that the Senate language did not, in fact, expand federal funding for abortion and announced their support of the Senate bill – a rare public break with the bishops. "Our contacts there [in Pelosi's office] helped us know the rhythm and concerns of the speaker's office," Sister Campbell says. "We knew where the votes were or weren't. It's not rocket science. Key Catholic votes were needed – and [these members] needed assurance that this new abortion mechanism would work."
Mr. Stupak was stunned. "We had never heard of these nuns before," he says.
At the climactic hour, Pelosi offered Stupak and other holdouts a sweetener: The White House would issue an executive order clarifying that public funds would not be used to fund abortion. This agreement, as well as the public backing of the Catholic churchwomen, gave anti-abortion Democrats cover for backing the Senate bill – and gave Pelosi her last critical votes for passing the Senate health-care bill. "Three or four in the Stupak coalition went over to the other side explicitly saying they [were] moved by the nuns...," says Deal Hudson, president of the Catholic Advocate, an anti-abortion advocacy group. "So it was a very powerful move at that moment in time."