WEST BRANCH, Mich. — Shortly after entering Congress in 1993, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan withstood President Bill Clinton's charm offensive and voted against free-trade legislation – an early display of the independent streak that has put him at odds with fellow Democrats many times since.
He's now the unofficial leader of a small but powerful bloc threatening to derail another Democratic president's cherished initiative: health care overhaul.
A dozen socially conservative Democrats say they won't support the legislation without a prohibition on paying for abortions with federal money. Stupak wrote a provision to their liking for a House bill approved last November, but the Senate replaced it with wording he considers unacceptable.
With the House closely divided, opposition from his faction could doom the measure and cripple Barack Obama's presidency. Stupak is under intense pressure not to let that happen. Some Democrats in his northern Michigan district are so angry that he's facing a rare – and long-shot – primary challenge.
Anti-abortion allies such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops want Stupak, a devout Roman Catholic, to dig in.
He said this week a deal with House Democratic leaders was within reach, although prospects appeared dim Thursday as Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said bill supporters would try to pass it without making the changes Stupak's group demands.
Stupak insists he favors overhauling the nation's health care system, even describing it as a "pro-life" cause.
"But you don't start compromising your values and principles based on some historical purpose, so 20 years from now people will look back and say, 'Wasn't that a sign of courage?'" he said. "They'll also say, 'Yeah, where were his principles and beliefs?' I think that lasts longer. When I leave Congress, I'm still going to have my integrity in place."
Connie Saltonstall, a former Charlevoix County commissioner who announced Tuesday she would oppose Stupak for the Democratic nomination, said his priorities were upside down.
"I believe that he has a right to his personal, religious views," said Saltonstall, 64. "But to deprive his constituents of needed health care reform because of those views is reprehensible."
Stupak, an attorney and former state police trooper, has never been in serious danger during 18 years of representing Michigan's northernmost congressional district, which includes the entire Upper Peninsula and a sizable chunk of the Lower Peninsula.
The area is rural, mostly blue-collar and given to electing centrists known for putting constituent service ahead of ideology and party. Its congressional representatives were moderate Republicans for nearly three decades before Stupak prevailed.
It has the second-largest land area of any district east of the Mississippi, measuring roughly 600 miles across. The largest city, Marquette, has just 20,000 residents.
Unseating the incumbent has proven almost impossible. Republicans fielded a solid opponent in 2008, former state Rep. Tom Casperson, but Stupak won with 65 percent of the vote.
He remains popular by obtaining federal money for local projects, avoiding scandals and staying within the down-home mainstream on hot-button issues.
In addition to opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, disliked by Upper Peninsula labor unionists, he again bucked Clinton by voting against a ban on assault weapons. Gun rights are important to his constituents in northern Michigan, a haven for hunters.
"He does his homework," said Jim McKimmy, the Democratic chairman in Antrim County, who pleaded with Stupak at a town hall meeting this week not to stand in the way of health care legislation. "He knows where the middle is and he knows how to represent his district."
The region's views on abortion are mixed, despite the Catholic Church's strong presence. Stupak says his stand "reflects adequately" his constituency's mindset but is based on bedrock conviction, not political calculation.
"I believe in the sanctity of life," he said this week while driving between public gatherings. "Because it may not be convenient, do you take a life? That's not the standard of a moral society."
Nancy Douglas, a longtime friend and economic development director in Stupak's hometown of Menominee, said she wasn't surprised he would refuse to back down – even to the point of scuttling the health care overhaul.
"It's very much in keeping with what I know of him," said Douglas, who supports abortion rights and has debated abortion with Stupak. "I respect that he is doing what he truly believes in."
Critics accuse him of imposing his religious beliefs on the nation. "It is outrageous and un-American," said Mary Pollock of the National Organization for Women's Michigan chapter.
For 10 years, Stupak was among a small group of conservative Christian lawmakers who rent rooms in a Washington, D.C., town house known as the "C Street Center." It drew attention last year because of sex scandals involving several current or former lawmakers with ties to the dwelling, including Sen. John Ensign and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.
Stupak said he moved out in January "because of all the craziness going on about it" but insisted the building was nothing more than a boardinghouse where lawmakers gathered weekly to dine, pray and sometimes discuss personal or spiritual matters. It doesn't have any connection with Stupak's high-profile role on abortion and health care, he said.
"There's no secret oath, no secret pledges, no secret agenda," Stupak said. "C Street has nothing to do with it. People say I'm doing this for the Catholic bishops; they have nothing to do with it. I've always been pro-life. If anything, I've been consistent."