By Peter J. Smith and Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, DC, March 18, 2010 ( – White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs revealed to reporters today that President Barack Obama actively promoted the Catholic Health Association’s public break with the American Catholic bishops to support his health care legislation.

Gibbs also suggested that the CHA and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ (LCWR) break with the U.S. Bishops has provided legitimate political cover for pro-life Democrats to switch their votes from “no” to “yes.”

“I think over the past twenty four hours we have seen strong indications from those in the Catholic Church that support our belief that the legislation is about health care reform, and that it shouldn’t and doesn’t change the existing federal law [on abortion]. The Catholic Health Association and the order of nun’s support is very important,” Gibbs told reporters on the White House lawn for Thursday’s press conference.

CHA president Sr. Carol Keehan and LCWR sparked an uproar this week after they came out definitively in favor of the Senate health care bill, which top pro-life organizations such as the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in addition to countless others, have strongly condemned as unacceptable for its abortion funding provisions. Since then, in their quest to woo the final pro-life Democrat holdouts among House lawmakers, party leaders have attempted to paint CHA’s support for the bill as a bona fide endorsement from the Catholic community.

So far, the president’s strategy appears to have paid off: some lawmakers have evidently already taken the two groups’ endorsements as an excuse to switch their vote.

Gibbs cited Congressman Dale Kildee’s (D-MI) Wednesday press conference – in which he explained how CHA’s endorsement had “affected his thinking” to get him to support the bill – as a sign that Democrats may be able to get more lawmakers on board in the same way.

Gibbs said that the president had been engaged on the issue, and a reporter asked if he had reached out personally to the groups.

“The President met earlier this week with Sr. Keehan of the CHA,” said Gibbs, saying the meeting took place in the Roosevelt Room, but that he “did not get a detailed run-down of the pitch that [Obama] made.”

“I do know that he was effusive about her support and her as a person for making the courageous statements that she has,” he said.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), one of the pro-life Democrat holdouts against the bill, pointed out this week that, as a trade association, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) has more at stake with the bill’s passage than it may openly admit.

“I think the hospitals have a different perspective because they’re running large institutions,” Kaptur said. “They have a lot of issues at stake. They have to balance their budgets and so forth. I think that the Bishops are probably in a different position. I don’t think that they’re really managerially responsible for these institutions.”

Unlike the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, CHA is a for-profit entity, and analysts have pointed out that it would greatly benefit financially from the passage of the bill. CHA had already promised large sums of money to the Obama administration in July to help pass the legislation – before it was ever crafted.

See related coverage:

Catholic Organizations’ Support for Health Care Reform Follows the Money Trail