ABC News' Teddy Davis Reports: When Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., voted "present," rather than "yes" or "no" on a handful of controversial abortion votes in the Illinois state senate, he did so with the explicit support of the president and CEO of Illinois Planned Parenthood Council.
"We at Planned Parenthood view those as leadership votes," Pam Sutherland, the president and CEO of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, told ABC News. "We worked with him specifically on his strategy. The Republicans were in control of the Illinois Senate at the time. They loved to hold votes on 'partial birth' and 'born alive'. They put these bills out all the time . . . because they wanted to pigeonhole Democrats."
Speaking to ABC News as Obama was preparing to join Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and the wife of Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., in addressing Planned Parenthoodâ€™s national conference in Washington, D.C., Sutherland said Obama approached her in the late 1990s and worked with her and others in crafting the strategy of voting "present." She remembers meeting with Obama outside of the Illinois Senate chambers on the Democratic side of the aisle. She and Obama finished their conversation in his office.
"He came to me and said: 'My members are being attacked. We need to figure out a way to protect members and to protect women,'" said Sutherland in recounting her conversation with Obama. "A 'present' vote was hard to pigeonhole which is exactly what Obama wanted."
"What it did," she continued, "was give cover to moderate Democrats who wanted to vote with us but were afraid to do so" because of how their votes would be used against them electorally. "A 'present' vote would protect them. Your senator voted 'present.' Most of the electorate is not going to know what that means."
While Sutherland was happy to give Obama latitude in voting "present," rather than "no," she was quick to note that "itâ€™s also not a 'yes' vote."
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, some of the specific abortion votes in question include two occasions in 1997 (HB 382 and SB 230) when he voted "present" on bills which would have prohibited a procedure referred to by its critics as "partial-birth abortion." In 2001, he voted "present" on two parental notification abortion bills (HB 1900 and SB 562), and he voted "present" on a series of bills (SB 1093, 1094, 1095) that sought to protect a child if he or she survived a failed abortion.
If Obama makes it to the general election, he can expect the Republican National Committee to use his "present" votes on abortion -- and other controversial issues -- to paint him as â€œA Leader Who Has Never Led.â€?
"Nothing quite says principled and strong leadership like a 'present' vote on a controversial issue," RNC spokesman Dan Ronayne told ABC News. "Apparently the rookie didn't take all his at bats in the minors."
But while he competes for the Democratic presidential nomination, he can use his cooperation with Planned Parenthood in Illinois to help assure supporters of abortion rights across the country that he will not cross them.
"Obama made sure those bills got as few votes as possible for passage," said Sullivan.