Facing a rebellion led by women in the party, House Republican leaders abruptly pulled legislation on Wednesday night to ban late-term abortion, unable to reconcile differences over language involving rape.
Instead the GOP decided to hold a vote on a measure seeking to outlaw taxpayer funding for abortion on Thursday, the day of the annual March For Life, a massive anti-abortion rally in Washington.
The original legislation would have banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a move polls say Americans support. The language that caused the chaos required women to report a sexual assault to the authorities in order to seek medical treatment to terminate a pregnancy.
Anti-abortion bills have typically been routine messaging vehicles for the GOP to lay down a marker. House Republicans different versions in 2011 and 2013, enjoying strong praise from the pro-life community each time. The bills never became law, facing veto threats from President Barack Obama.
The most vocal objector to the 20-week abortion bill was Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), who raised concerns to last week and asked leaders not to bring the bill up this week. By Tuesday this week, she and Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) publicly rescinded their co-sponsorship of the bill on the House floor.
Privately, less ideological Republicans worried that an anti-abortion bill was the wrong bill to take up shortly after winning full control of Congress.
On Wednesday morning, House Republicans held a long conference meeting to discuss the matter and find a way forward. They considered changing the rape language in order to placate the objecting members, Reps. Tom Cole (R-OK) and Trent Franks (R-AZ) told TPM in the afternoon. But they faced a major obstacle: softening the rape language would alienate more right-wing members who are skeptical of exceptions to outlawing abortion.
Meanwhile, Ellmers and fellow defectors faced the wrath of the anti-abortion community, which blasted her as “reprehensible” for siding with “violent injustice of the dismemberment of children” and demonstrating “ill-informed cowardliness.”
By late Wednesday afternoon, Ellmers took to Facebook to say she wouldn’t stand in the way of the late-term abortion ban, declaring that “I have and will continue to be a strong defender of the prolife community.”
The episode is a powerful defeat for the conservative wing of the party against the more moderate forces who don’t want to spent time debating social issues. The intersection of rape and abortion has caused Republicans many headaches in recent years.
Back in 2011, after reclaiming the majority, House Republicans faced fierce blowback over a measure that limited access to emergency funding to cases of “forcible rape.” They eventually removed that language and the bill passed the House.
Then in 2012, the GOP brand was damaged by Rep. Todd Akin’s bizarre (and factually inaccurate) remark that in a “legitimate rape,” “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” — referring to pregnancy. He went on to lose a winnable Senate seat against a vulnerable Democrat in Missouri.
In 2013, Franks was touting his 20-week abortion ban — similar to the current bill — and landed in hot water for saying publicly that pregnancy from rape was “very rare.” He was yanked as the floor manager of the debate and replaced with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The bill passed the House.
The crux of the intra-party divisions is a longstanding dispute between moderate Republicans who oppose legal abortion but support exceptions, versus the more conservative members who tend to oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. (Most support an exception when the mother’s life is at stake.)
Democrats and abortion-rights advocates seized on the internal GOP dispute and placed it in the broader context of the GOP’s war on women.
“This bill is an abomination,” Wasserman Schultz told TPM of the late-term abortion ban. “It really shows women in this country exactly who’s on their side and where Republicans’ priorities are when it comes to their health.”