How the House GOP’s Abortion Bill Fell Apart

Women and moderates warned Republican leaders that trouble was coming, but it’s not clear they listened.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) (L) speaks to members of the media as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) (R) listens after a leadership election at a House Republican Conference meeting June 19, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House GOPs have picked Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the new House majority leader and Scalise as the new majority whip. 
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Lauren Fox and Daniel Newhauser
Jan. 22, 2015, 11:33 a.m.

When Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers im­plored Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers to change course at a private party re­treat in Her­shey, Pa., last week, it was the first time many rank-and-file House mem­bers had heard of the sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent sur­round­ing an an­ti­abor­tion bill sched­uled to come to the House floor.

But it wasn’t news to lead­er­ship.

In the week lead­ing up to the re­treat, a di­verse group of Re­pub­lic­an wo­men, in­clud­ing Rep. Ellmers, Kristi Noem, and Cyn­thia Lum­mis, had brought their con­cerns to Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scal­ise. They said, ac­cord­ing to people who were in the room, that the Pain-Cap­able Un­born Child Pro­tec­tion Act was turn­ing in­to a bill that defined rape and dis­trac­ted from the bill’s in­tent of stop­ping late-term abor­tions. They were liv­id about a clause in the bill that re­quired a wo­man to have re­por­ted sexu­al as­sault to po­lice in or­der to be eli­gible for the pro­ced­ure.

After the meet­ing, the wo­men walked away con­fid­ent that Scal­ise had un­der­stood their con­cerns and that once he re­layed them to lead­er­ship, they would change the lan­guage in the bill. But the lead­ers didn’t — either be­cause they un­der­es­tim­ated the depth of the com­plaints, or over­es­tim­ated their own abil­ity to smooth over rough feel­ings be­fore the bill hit the floor.

What fol­lowed was two weeks of push and pull between GOP lead­ers and the grow­ing ranks of wo­men in their con­fer­ence, between an­ti­abor­tion con­ser­vat­ives and North­east­ern cent­rists. The bill laid bare new di­vi­sions in the massive GOP ma­jor­ity, and was even­tu­ally pulled in fa­vor of a non­con­tro­ver­sial al­tern­at­ive. But the dam­age was done: Phone calls flooded mem­bers’ of­fices and lead­ers had to back down on an an­ti­abor­tion bill even as March for Life pro­test­ers swarmed the Cap­it­ol grounds to com­mem­or­ate the 42nd an­niversary of the Su­preme Court’s Roe v. Wade de­cision.

“I hate the way it all played out, but we just have to do bet­ter next time,” Ellmers said in an in­ter­view while ex­it­ing the Cap­it­ol on Thursday, after the re­place­ment bill eas­ily passed the House. “The whole point of this is to make this bill stronger.”

Why lead­er­ship did not ini­tially listen to the wo­men still baffles mem­bers of the con­fer­ence, many of whom spoke privately to re­con­struct a timeline of events lead­ing up to the ul­ti­mate de­cision to pull the bill.

It is clear, they say, that lead­er­ship de­cided to gamble that their swollen ranks, the largest Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in more than a gen­er­a­tion, would eas­ily ac­cept the same bill that passed last Con­gress, ban­ning abor­tions after 20 weeks of preg­nancy.

The dif­fer­ence, the wo­men said, is that in the last Con­gress the rape-re­port­ing re­quire­ment was ad­ded to the bill in the Rules Com­mit­tee just hours be­fore it came to the floor, giv­ing them little time to fight back. This time they were pre­pared.

“I’ve nev­er seen the Re­pub­lic­an wo­men that strident, that force­ful, and that united,” one of the Re­pub­lic­an wo­men said.

Wo­men, joined by male mod­er­ates who ob­jec­ted to hav­ing to vote on con­ten­tious so­cial is­sues that could present elect­or­al con­sequences for them, raised their con­cerns at an open-mic ses­sion in Her­shey. And as they re­turned to their dis­tricts for the week­end, back-chan­nel com­mu­nic­a­tion con­tin­ued via staff throughout Tues­day’s fest­iv­it­ies sur­round­ing the State of the Uni­on ad­dress. That day, Ellmers and Rep. Jack­ie Wal­or­ski re­moved their names as co­spon­sors of the bill in protest. Fe­male mem­bers com­mu­nic­ated in an email chain throughout the week.

The wo­men were nev­er­the­less floored when Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy rose at a weekly closed-door meet­ing of the GOP Con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day morn­ing and said that al­though the bill was shrouded in con­tro­versy, it would move to the floor as planned.

Staff were kicked out of the meet­ing to avoid leaks, and as the usu­ally hour-long meet­ing stretched to nearly 2 hours, Ellmers joined Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn and oth­er wo­men in again re­gis­ter­ing their com­plaints: Not only would the bill mire the Re­pub­lic­an Party in an awk­ward con­ver­sa­tion about rape, it would also turn off wo­men and mil­len­ni­al voters, just the con­stitu­en­cies the GOP must court to win the up­com­ing 2016 Sen­ate and pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“We saw there needed to be some more work on it,” Black­burn said Thursday. “I wanted to make cer­tain that we got the bill right in the prop­er form, and have al­ways sup­por­ted our tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an plat­form: rape, in­cest, life of the moth­er.”

Still, much of the pres­sure to keep the lan­guage from shift­ing was com­ing from out­side groups who wanted to make the rape ex­cep­tion nar­row, like it had been when it sailed through the House last Con­gress. They wor­ried that without the re­quire­ment, the loop­hole would al­low wo­men to eas­ily ac­cess late-term abor­tions. After the meet­ing ad­journed, Mc­Carthy, Scal­ise, and oth­er lead­ers hos­ted di­verse groups of mem­bers throughout the day to gauge sup­port and hear their con­cerns.

Dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s first vote series, however, it be­came clear that the ob­jec­tions to the bill were broad­er than ex­pec­ted. Wal­or­ski and oth­er wo­men met in groups on the House floor to dis­cuss their griev­ances. Even more nu­anced con­cerns were voiced, in­clud­ing that the rape-re­port­ing re­quire­ment would clash with one already co­di­fied in mil­it­ary stat­utes, caus­ing con­fu­sion for vic­tims of mil­it­ary sexu­al trauma.

Around 3 p.m., Mc­Carthy and Scal­ise huddled in the speak­er’s cata­combs with a group of wo­men in­clud­ing Noem, Wal­or­ski, and Rep. Di­ane Black.

“We had some dis­agree­ment on le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage and we needed to work on that bill and make sure we had some con­sensus be­fore it comes to the floor,” Noem said Thursday. “I think lead­er­ship did its due duty, hav­ing a lot of meet­ings, hear­ing us, and at the end of the day, re­cog­niz­ing that we needed to have more time to have con­sensus.”

Al­though Mc­Carthy’s pub­lic op­tim­ism be­lied the ten­sion be­hind closed doors, it was clear lead­ers would have to tweak, if not not fully aban­don, the bill to move for­ward. There were three op­tions: Get rid of all ex­cep­tion lan­guage oth­er than al­low­ing the late-term abor­tion if the life of the moth­er is at risk; re­move the re­port­ing re­quire­ment and in­clude only ex­cep­tions for rape, in­cest, and the life of the moth­er; or pull the bill en­tirely.

“We’ve got sev­er­al big­ger is­sues com­ing up next week and bey­ond,” said one mem­ber, de­scrib­ing the sen­ti­ment be­hind closed doors. “We don’t need to frac­tion­al­ize our con­fer­ence.”

In the meet­ing, the de­cision was made to try the first route, one that had been es­poused by Rep. Ann Wag­n­er and oth­er mem­bers at the morn­ing con­fer­ence meet­ing. But when the whip team fanned out across the floor dur­ing the day’s second vote series around 3:30 p.m., lead­ers were in­und­ated with com­plaints from not only wo­men, but also North­east­ern and Mid­west­ern mod­er­ates, a grow­ing and in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial force in the caucus.

Rep. Tom Reed said mem­bers of the whip team ap­proached him ask­ing wheth­er he would sup­port a bill without the rape and in­cest ex­cep­tions. In re­sponse, he re­layed the story of his niece who had been raped, not­ing that he is against abor­tion, but would nev­er sign off on a bill dis­al­low­ing the pro­ced­ure for wo­men who had been sexu­ally as­saul­ted.

“I’m pro-life, but I be­lieve in the ex­cep­tions: rape and in­cest,” Reed said later.

After the vote series, Speak­er John Boehner and his top lieu­ten­ants huddled in his of­fice for their daily man­age­ment meet­ing. Des­pite their lim­ited suc­cess, they de­cided to take one last stab at the pos­sib­il­ity of mov­ing an amended bill. Boehner him­self took res­pite at the Cap­it­ol Hill Club as oth­er lead­ers handled the leg­work.

Mc­Carthy called Scal­ise and his whip team in­to his of­fice, along with Wal­or­ski, Black­burn, Black, and Wag­n­er as well as Reps. Vir­gin­ia Foxx and Martha Roby. A group of mod­er­ate male Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Rep. Frank Guinta, joined the meet­ing as well.

Roby, in par­tic­u­lar, made a com­pel­ling ar­gu­ment to drop the bill, ac­cord­ing to sources in the room. She said there was no reas­on to bring up mes­saging le­gis­la­tion that would nev­er pass the Sen­ate or be signed by the pres­id­ent, and would only harm the party’s repu­ta­tion when mem­bers already had earned their an­ti­abor­tion stripes in their dis­tricts.

After an hour of back-and-forth, the meet­ing ad­journed. Soon after, lead­ers sent word to their troops: They had moved too quickly on this bill, not fully in­tern­al­iz­ing mem­bers’ con­cerns. The bill would be dropped. In­stead, they would bring up Rep. Chris Smith’s bill man­dat­ing that no tax­pay­er funds be used to fund abor­tions.

“When you rush things and don’t do busi­ness and let the pro­cess work, you just run in­to trouble every time. So we’ve learned something,” said GOP Con­fer­ence Vice Chair­wo­man Lynn Jen­kins. “It’s just un­for­tu­nate with the pro-lifers here that the tim­ing didn’t work out this time.”

Mc­Carthy broke the news to Rep. Trent Franks, the late-term abor­tion bill’s lead spon­sor, fetch­ing him from a re­cep­tion. Mc­Carthy also met with the heads of half a dozen top an­ti­abor­tion groups, in­clud­ing Na­tion­al Right to Life and the Susan B. An­thony List.

“To say any­thing oth­er than I was pro­foundly dis­ap­poin­ted would be disin­genu­ous,” Franks later said. “We made the most des­per­ate at­tempt to avoid these kinds of “¦ sur­prises by mak­ing sure that the bill that we in­tro­duced was ex­actly, word for word, let­ter for let­ter, the same as the one we passed last time.”

Rules Com­mit­tee Chair­man Pete Ses­sions was no­ti­fied that he would have to pre­pare Smith’s bill for the floor im­me­di­ately. Shortly after 8 p.m., the pan­el an­nounced it would con­vene to swap out the two pieces of le­gis­la­tion.

“We landed on the one that was really easy to un­der­stand,” Ses­sions said.

The sub­sti­tute bill passed eas­ily, with just one Re­pub­lic­an, Rep. Richard Hanna, vot­ing against it.

Franks said he has a verbal com­mit­ment from Mc­Carthy to bring his bill back to the floor later. And out­side the Cap­it­ol, House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair­wo­man Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers tried to ease the ten­sion with pro­test­ers, telling them the bill would come up again.

“The Pain-Cap­able Un­born Child Pro­tec­tion Act is so im­port­ant, be­cause it shifts the de­bate in the pro-life com­munity all across this coun­try and makes very clear the pain an un­born child feels is very real and very wrong,” she said.

While Franks and oth­ers were un­happy, many wo­men in the con­fer­ence ap­plauded the lead­er­ship’s de­cision Thursday, not­ing that it might prove to be a teach­ing mo­ment for them in the fu­ture. But it is clear that lead­ers still have much to learn.

“I think the lead­er­ship genu­inely feels bad about this. Genu­inely,” one wo­man said. “I hope that that will trans­late in­to listen­ing to people who have vot­ing cards in­stead of listen­ing to people who don’t have vot­ing cards.”

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