Tens of thousands of Americans descended on Washington for the annual March For Life on Thursday only to see House Republicans melt down over their signature issue: abortion.
A symbolic messaging bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy threw the party into disarray and was abruptly pulled at the last minute after a group of GOP women and swing-district lawmakers raised hackles over a rape-exception provision that required victims of sexual assault to report the crime to authorities before they could get an abortion.
“None of us saw it coming,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) told reporters on Thursday.
The rebellion was lit in recent days by women in the conference, primarily Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), as well as more centrist members including a sizable faction of freshmen in swing districts. Republican leaders and conservatives were blindsided — after all, they had comfortably passed similar legislation in the last Congress with the same rape clause.
“I was surprised,” Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) told TPM. “But it’s a new Congress. You know, new people are up here. And I know some of the younger members didn’t want to have such a strong statement on that.”
A perplexed Hudson added, “We voted on the same legislation last [congress] and these concerns weren’t raised. So that’s why I think leadership didn’t anticipate the concerns being raised. So that’s why I don’t fault them. I think they’re doing the best they can.”
Center-right Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) strongly criticized the abortion bill, suggesting that it passed with the rape clause in 2013 only because most members hadn’t read it closely.
“The less we engage on this issue [of rape] legislatively, the better off we are as a party,” he said. “What kind of message are we sending?”
In the end, Republican leaders pulled the bill and took a bullet for their objecting members, who were facing the wrath of anti-abortion advocates. Opponents admitted it likely would have passed despite their objections, but the drama over the rape clause would have put moderates in a bind and threatened to damage the party’s brand.
“I would prefer that our party spend less time focusing on these very contentious social issues because that distracts us from broader economic messages,” Dent said. “This was a messaging bill that was going nowhere in the Senate.”
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Ellmers took so much heat from the pro-life movement she announced Wednesday evening on Facebook — around the same time as Republican leaders decided to yank the bill — that she would have voted for it even with the rape clause.
“It’s unfortunate the way it played out,” she told reporters on Thursday, according to the Washington Examiner. “I think we’re all just going through some growing pains.”
As a consolation prize for the anti-abortion protesters, who arrived in Washington on the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, House Republicans instead brought up and passed legislation to restrict taxpayer funding of abortion.
One of the rebelling freshman, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), called the rape provision in the abortion bill that was shelved a “mistake.” He said it caused “a level of discomfort, especially with the females in our conference.”
“I’m pro-life but I had concerns about the bill — the rape requirement. I think that was something that was dividing our conference,” he told reporters. “We have to have absolute sympathy and solidarity with any woman who was raped.”
Curbelo, who delivered the party’s Spanish-language rebuttal to the State of the Union, praised Republican leaders for pulling the legislation and said they would be hearing more from the new, more moderate freshman.
“I can tell you that many of my freshman colleagues have not been shy about standing up, showing up at meetings, and expressing their concerns, reservations and opinions,” he said.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), the vice chair of the House GOP conference and a co-sponsor of the 20-week bill, told TPM that the lesson for leadership was that the bill “didn’t go through regular order” — bypassing committee.
“When you don’t use the process this is what happens,” she said. “Not gonna make that mistake again.”
For Dent, it has been a depressing start to the new Congress.
“Week one, we had a Speaker election that didn’t go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we spent a lot of time talking about deporting children, a conversation a lot of us didn’t want to have. Week three, we’re debating reportable rape and incest — again, not an issue a lot of us wanted to have a conversation about,” the Republican congressman said. “I just can’t wait for week four.”