The House of Representatives approved legislation Thursday that would permanently prohibit federal funding for abortions after Republican leaders shelved a different measure amid protests from women in the party who complained that some of its provisions were too harsh.
With thousands of abortion opponents in Washington to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, House lawmakers voted 242-179 on the abortion funding bill.
The legislation would go a step further than a 1976 amendment named for the late Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois. That law already prevents the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life. But the Hyde Amendment requires passage annually, and Thursday’s bill would make its provisions permanent.
Thursday’s vote came about after the House Republican leadership abruptly pulled a bill Wednesday night that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy after several members, led by Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., objected.
With so many anti-abortion movement supporters in town, longtime allies of the party, abortion opponents in the GOP caucus felt compelled to vote on something, if for just symbolic reasons alone.
But for all the political drama, the legislation is likely to go nowhere. It moves to the Republican-run Senate, where passage is unlikely. And even if the Senates approve the measure, the White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama would veto it.
“I was fine with the bill either way because the important thing for me as a pro-life person is to make a very strong pro-life statement today with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the march of life here in town today,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. “I’m proud of the leadership for bringing to the floor a bill that we can all rally behind.”
The initial abortion bill that caused the uproar, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, contained exceptions to save the mother’s life, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest of a minor, as long as it was reported to law enforcement.
The exceptions prompted a small group of Republican women to express concerns to House leaders. Ellmers first voiced those views at the House and Senate Republican retreat last week in Hershey, Pa., and her comments were picked up in news reports.
Lawmakers who protested the exceptions cited estimates from the Justice Department and other experts that about 70 percent of rapes go unreported.
Ellmers told reporters Thursday morning that’s why she objected to the reporting requirement.
“It’s unfortunate the way it played out,” she said, according to the Washington Examiner. “I think we’re all just going through some growing pains.”
She declined interview requests but later said in a statement that she was working with other Republican lawmakers to revise the bill.
“Our goal is to find a way to get this legislation in its best possible form, and I remain fully committed to bringing this legislation to the House floor for a vote,” Ellmers said.
Besides Ellmers, others among the 22 women of the House Republican caucus raised the same concerns.
“No question, women members of the conference were quite eloquent about the problem with the reportable rape language,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “It wasn’t just the women. Men, too.”
Dent said the message the party wanted to send with the bill got blurred.
“The message was not a good message,” he said. “It became a debate on rape, incest and abortion, or should I say, reportable rape and incest.”
Ellmers, a conservative who opposes abortion, was an unlikely point person to lead the opposition to the original bill. A nurse by profession, she has been a frequent choice of the House GOP to be the public face of the party’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the GOP’s persistent attempts to repeal it.
Her latest role as an insurgent, however, surprised many and unleashed a flood of criticism. First she opposed the initial bill, then said she would vote for it. She voted for the substitute abortion bill on Thursday.
But an aide said her offices were fielding huge numbers of angry calls. On Thursday afternoon, about 75 protesters filled the hallway outside her office.
“She’s on record as a no-exceptions pro-lifer and she’s seeking to expand the exceptions, which makes no sense at all,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of North Carolina Values Coalition, who attended the protest. “Renee Ellmers has abandoned the unborn babies in the world for some sort of political maneuvering that no one can understand or has heard an explanation for yet.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said in a short speech to several members of Ellmers’ staff, who took notes, that they wanted the congresswoman to reconsider and lead Republican women to vote for the abortion ban bill.
Hawkins said in an interview afterward that the protesters focused on Ellmers after her comments at the Republican retreat became public.
“We don’t see that her concerns were large enough to delay this bill,” and there would have been opportunities later to make changes, said John Allen of Raleigh, who also was outside Ellmers’ office. “And not only did she decide to hold up the bill, but she got a whole bunch of people to get behind her on that. We’ve have much deeper concerns in that regard.”
Ellmers aide Mitchell Vakerics told the group that Ellmers could not meet with them because she’d left Washington for a previously scheduled trip with other members of Congress. He said he would inform her of their concerns.
“We know people are angry. That’s been made clear,” he said, but he noted that the protesters made their point with civility and thanked them.
Still, Rep. Hudson said the concerns of fellow Republicans – Dent estimated nearly two dozen – caught Republican leaders flatfooted.
“None of us saw it coming,” Hudson said. “We voted on the same legislation last year and these concerns weren’t raised, so that’s why the leadership didn’t anticipate the concerns being raised, so that’s why I don’t fault them.”
Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican from Charlotte, said in a phone interview on Thursday that Ellmers had spoken to a meeting of House Republicans about her concerns about the bill.
“I respect her concerns she had with the bill,” he said. “Renee is a pro-life member and certainly she is concerned about late-term abortions where the baby is fully formed and feels pain.”