At a crucial moment in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, when Capitol Hill was as pressure-packed and partisan as it has been in recent history, legislative counsel Nicole Gustafson got the chance to press for the issue she says is written on her heart.
Gustafson, the unplanned daughter of an unwed teenage mother in Iowa, says she and her boss, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), spent a day in 2009 urging different House members to vote for an amendment to the bill that would prevent government funds from going toward elective abortions.
Some Republicans thought defeating the amendment would make it harder for the overall bill to pass. But Gustafson helped persuade them that defeating the amendment would mean losing the support of Democrats who shared right-to-life concerns – and that would ultimately hasten the passage of President Barack Obama’s sweeping healthcare reform.
“What we did really made a difference that day,” Gustafson said. The House passed what was called the Stupak-Pitts amendment. The ACA stalled for months, turning the elective abortion funding issue into the center of the debate and helping garner support for another abortion funding bill the House passed last year.
Gustafson, 34, initially came to Washington hoping to fight for the National Right to Life movement, thinking she might ultimately want to become a lobbyist for the cause. But now, as senior policy advisor and chief legislative counsel for Cantor, the House majority leader, she has hands-on influence on issues from homeland security to conservative social policies like abortion and religious freedom.
“Right now, I can’t believe they pay me to do my hobby,” Gustafson said, who says she likes working on a wide range of issues instead of just one narrow focus. “I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else.”
In a way, Gustafson was born for the job. Her mother, in Chariton, Iowa, a small town of about 5,000, had strong family support when she unexpectedly got pregnant with Gustafson. She could have had an abortion, but Gustafson says her mother rejected the idea immediately, in part because of the teachings of her Christian faith.
“Luckily for me it was not an option for her,” said Gustafson.
After graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law, all of Gustafson’s jobs have been related to abortion issues, and her personal story makes people pause during discussions. “It’s about changing hearts and minds, and this is a baby you’re talking about,” she says. “To me it’s just a clear-cut issue.”
She worked for the National Right to Life Committee, then for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act. She worked as policy director for the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and counsel for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). She was policy director and counsel for Senate Republican Conference Vice Chair John Cornyn (R-Texas) from 2007 to 2009.
Then Gustafson starting working for Cantor in 2009 and became the liaison between his office and conservative groups. Now, in 2011, Gustafson helps Cantor decide what goes to the floor for debate, and helps set his legislative priorities.
Last year, Gustafson spent time talking to members who had questions about H.R. 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Right now, another law prevents government funds from going to elective abortions, but only in certain appropriations bills. H.R. 3 would make that ban government-wide.
Gustafson is proud that the bill passed with a vote from every Republican representative, and picked up 16 Democratic votes as well. The bill has stalled in the Senate, but Gustafson says the measure still keeps the issue in the minds of Americans.
“Just a couple of years ago, we probably wouldn’t have had the same vote,” Gustafson said. “To me, it represents a changing of hearts and minds on the abortion issue generally."
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