GOP Leaders Pull Abortion Bill After Revolt by Women, Moderates

Female lawmakers were upset by a rape provision, as moderates feared the party was pursuing the wrong agenda.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) speaks during a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee October 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Developers who helped to build the website for people to buy health insurance under Obamacare testified before the panel on what had gone wrong to cause the technical difficulties in accessing the site. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Lauren Fox and Daniel Newhauser
Jan. 21, 2015, 12:27 p.m.

Bow­ing to the wishes of sev­er­al mod­er­ates and wo­men mem­bers, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers pulled a con­tro­ver­sial an­ti­abor­tion bill from con­sid­er­a­tion late Wed­nes­day night, a move sure to en­rage an­ti­abor­tion act­iv­ists, who will des­cend on Cap­it­ol Hill Thursday for their an­nu­al March for Life.

The bill will be re­placed by the No Tax­pay­er Fund­ing for Abor­tion Act, a bi­par­tis­an bill that passed the House last year and will get an­oth­er vote on Thursday, the 42nd an­niversary of the Su­preme Court’s Roe v. Wade de­cision. The change came after House Re­pub­lic­an wo­men and mod­er­ates battled against their lead­ers on the Pain Cap­able Un­born Child Pro­tec­tion Act, ex­hib­it­ing the deep­en­ing rift between cent­rists and con­ser­vat­ives who are at cross-pur­poses on which is­sues the party should be high­light­ing.

As of Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers were in­sist­ent they would move ahead with le­gis­la­tion ban­ning abor­tions after 20 weeks, but the Rules Com­mit­tee an­nounced an emer­gency meet­ing Wed­nes­day night and sources said the bill would be pulled in fa­vor of the less con­tro­ver­sial al­tern­at­ive.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans wor­ried that the 20-week abor­tion meas­ure might ali­en­ate mil­len­ni­als and fe­male voters. But many fe­male law­makers were also furi­ous over its clause stat­ing that wo­men can be ex­empt from the ban in cases of rape only if they re­por­ted the rape to au­thor­it­ies.

“We’re con­tinu­ing to listen to every­body,” House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy said Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, ex­it­ing the House floor after the rule gov­ern­ing de­bate on the bill passed with un­an­im­ous GOP sup­port. “We’re still plan­ning on mov­ing for­ward with the bill to­mor­row.”

But party lead­ers re­versed course just a few hours later, as they try to juggle the com­pet­ing in­terests of mod­er­ate voices in their party who prefer not to cast con­tro­ver­sial votes on so­cial is­sues and staunch an­ti­abor­tion mem­bers, many of whom will protest at the Cap­it­ol at Thursday’s March for Life.

“I prefer that we avoid these very con­ten­tious so­cial is­sues,” said mod­er­ate Rep. Charlie Dent, re­pris­ing com­ments he gave in the closed-door con­fer­ence meet­ing. “Week one, we had a speak­er elec­tion that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got in­to a big fight over de­port­ing chil­dren, something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a dis­cus­sion about. Week three, we are now talk­ing about rape and in­cest and re­port­able rapes and in­cest for minors. “¦ I just can’t wait for week four.”

In the last week a new is­sue caused trouble for lead­er­ship: Nearly every wo­man in the con­fer­ence was op­posed to the way the abor­tion bill was brought forth.

Mc­Carthy told his con­fer­ence at a closed-door meet­ing Wed­nes­day that the bill was con­tro­ver­sial but that the plan was to move it any­way. That drew ex­cor­i­ation from rank-and-file wo­men, who were con­cerned that the bill’s rape clause would have a chilling ef­fect on wo­men re­port­ing rapes and liv­id that they were not con­sul­ted be­fore the ob­jec­tion­able clause con­cern­ing the rape ex­cep­tion was ad­ded in­to the base text of the bill.

Tellingly, Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn, a lead co­spon­sor of the bill, gave an im­pas­sioned speech in con­fer­ence, not­ing that be­cause of the rape clause, the GOP was again fum­bling over this sens­it­ive sub­ject in­stead of talk­ing about oth­er is­sues, ac­cord­ing to sources in the meet­ing.

Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers re­peated her cri­tique from the GOP’s re­treat in Her­shey, Pa., last week­end that vot­ing on abor­tion bills so early in the ses­sion would turn off mil­len­ni­al voters. And Rep. Jack­ie Wal­or­ski left the meet­ing early, ac­cord­ing to sources in the room.

On Tues­day, Wal­or­ski and Ellmers with­drew their co­spon­sor­ships of the bill, and even some Re­pub­lic­an men said they had con­cerns about vot­ing for the le­gis­la­tion that re­quires wo­men to re­port rapes in or­der to have ac­cess to a late-term abor­tion.

“When you start get­ting in­to telling a wo­man that she has to re­port she was raped to be able to qual­i­fy, that takes it in a dir­ec­tion that makes me very un­com­fort­able,” Rep. Tom Rooney said, not­ing that he was still lean­ing to­ward sup­port­ing the bill.

Rep. Ann Wag­n­er pushed lead­ers to re­move every ex­cep­tion oth­er than cases when the life of the moth­er is at stake, ac­cord­ing to mem­ber sources, but do­ing so could have ali­en­ated more cent­rists. Oth­ers wanted lead­ers to simply re­move the clause man­dat­ing re­port­ing rape to the au­thor­it­ies, but that could have pushed away the party’s act­iv­ists.

At a Wed­nes­day morn­ing meet­ing of the Con­ser­vat­ive Op­por­tun­ity So­ci­ety, a group of con­ser­vat­ive House mem­bers, Susan B. An­thony List founder Mar­jor­ie Dannen­felser spoke about why the bill is im­port­ant. Tony Per­kins, pres­id­ent of the so­cially con­ser­vat­ive Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, was also spot­ted in the Cap­it­ol speak­ing to mem­bers. And some law­makers said they are com­prom­ising by even in­clud­ing an ex­cep­tion in cases of rape or in­cest.

“I would not make ex­cep­tions for rape and in­cest, and then the re­port­ing re­quire­ment would not be ne­ces­sary,” said Rep. Steve King, who at­ten­ded the Con­ser­vat­ive Op­por­tun­ity So­ci­ety meet­ing.

Rep. Trent Franks, the lead spon­sor of the bill, shot down con­cerns that young people do not want to fo­cus on so­cial is­sues, say­ing that in his ex­per­i­ence mil­len­ni­al voters are even more an­ti­abor­tion than the gen­er­a­tions be­fore them.

“Every­one in our party sup­ports the ba­sic thrust of the bill,” he said. “Lead­er­ship is try­ing to fig­ure out if they took out ex­cep­tions en­tirely, if they left it as it is — there’s all kinds of things they’re try­ing to do to bal­ance, but I think they’ve tried to bal­ance it the best way they knew how.”

After the bill was pulled, Franks’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment on the lead­er­ship’s de­cision.

That the situ­ation was still in flux was evid­ent at a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon meet­ing between lead­er­ship and fe­male mem­bers of the con­fer­ence, some of whom op­pose the cur­rent bill. Ellmers and Wal­or­ski, along with Reps. Kristi Noem, Elise Stefanik, and Di­ane Black, emerged from Speak­er John Boehner’s cata­combs with little to say.

“It is com­pletely up in the air right now,” Ellmers said, dis­miss­ing re­port­ers’ ques­tions.

Pro­ponents of the bill ar­gued that the same rape clause was in­cluded in the ver­sion that passed the House with just six GOP de­fec­tions last Con­gress. Yet wo­men in the con­fer­ence said privately that they felt blind­sided then, be­cause it was in­cluded in the text dur­ing a meet­ing of the Rules Com­mit­tee mere hours be­fore the bill came to the floor. They held their fire at the time, but warned lead­ers not to in­clude it in the base text of the bill this year, even meet­ing with Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scal­ise be­fore the GOP re­treat.

A broad­er cross-sec­tion of Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers also ques­tioned why the House was spend­ing time on le­gis­la­tion that was un­likely to over­come the 60-vote threshold in the Sen­ate, let alone be signed in­to law by the pres­id­ent.

The di­vide over the abor­tion le­gis­la­tion marks a broad­er dis­agree­ment with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party that has been ra­ging for the last sev­er­al years. Now that Re­pub­lic­ans have an ex­pan­ded ma­jor­ity, con­ser­vat­ives want to flex their le­gis­lat­ive muscles and dare the pres­id­ent to use his veto pen. Mean­while, mod­er­ates want to use the op­por­tun­ity to tackle less con­tro­ver­sial meas­ures.

The le­gis­la­tion would have af­fected about 1 per­cent of abor­tions that take place an­nu­ally.

Pub­lic polls show that many Amer­ic­ans are on the side of the House Re­pub­lic­ans on the un­der­ly­ing is­sue in the bill. A ma­jor­ity of wo­men say that abor­tions should be re­stric­ted after the 20th week of preg­nancy.

“The polls even among wo­men are very clear on this,” Rep. Vicky Hartz­ler said. “People un­der­stand it is not right to dis­mem­ber a baby in the womb once it feels pain.”

This art­icle was up­dated at 9:40 p.m.

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