Congress

Abortion bill leads to some flip-flops among House Republicans

Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, Nov. 4, 2014, at the Barrington House in Dunn, N.C.
Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, Nov. 4, 2014, at the Barrington House in Dunn, N.C. MCT

Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., was part of an uprising in the House of Representatives over an abortion bill that caused House Republican leaders to scramble Wednesday to address their concerns.

By early Wednesday evening, the GOP leaders appeared to have succeeded, or at least quieted the rebellious voices.

Ellmers had officially withdrawn her support for the bill on Tuesday and was criticized by anti-abortion activists back home. On Wednesday evening, she posted her support for the bill on her Facebook page.

The bill would ban most abortions at 20 weeks or later. Whether a fetus feels pain at that stage is not a settled medical question.

The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Thursday, when abortion opponents plan to march in Washington to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Ellmers’ sudden reversal appeared intended to calm a storm of concerns over her surprise opposition. She was part of a largely party-line vote for a similar bill that the House passed in 2013 but that never got a vote in the Senate, then controlled by the Democrats. With Republicans now in charge, a Senate vote is likely.

A second Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana, also had withdrawn her support on Tuesday. But she also announced her intention to vote for the bill on Facebook, 18 hours before Ellmers.

The bill, called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would make exceptions when it is necessary to save the mother’s life or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, as long as it has been reported to police.

Ellmers declined to respond to questions on Wednesday. Her spokeswoman, Blair Ellis, said the congresswoman’s concerns were over the mandatory reporting requirements in the bill.

Politico earlier reported that Ellmers and five other Republican congresswomen said that the rape exception in the bill was too narrow because it only would apply to women who filed police reports. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, more than two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported.

The National Journal reported that Ellmers also said last week that the vote didn’t play to younger voters.

Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political report, said the disagreement over provisions in the abortion bill reflect an evolution within the Republican Party.

“You have a Republican Party that’s been hounded by Democrats on abortion over the last few years,” Gonzales said. “And the Republican caucus has changed over the last few years. There are more women.”

Gonzales also noted that because Republicans enjoy the largest majority – 246 seats – they’ve had in 65 years, some lawmakers might feel free to express themselves more or vote their conscience without hurting the party.

The news that Ellmers withdrew her support from the bill infuriated an anti-abortion group in North Carolina. The North Carolina Values Coalition posted an article on the front of its website with the headline: “Rep. Ellmers Betrays the Pro-Life Community.”

“We think the message here is she’s trying to derail a major pro-life victory, and the worst part is, we don’t know why she’d try to derail it,” Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said Wednesday. “Either she is for protecting unborn babies at the point where they can feel pain or she is not.”

Fitzgerald said that members of the coalition had been calling Ellmers’ offices to complain.

But others said that there was no division on abortion in the party.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a confidante of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday that “there’s unanimity” within the House Republican conference on abortion. But he added that “the bill was tweaked, I don’t think purposely, in a way that raised some concerns.”

“We had a discussion about that this morning,” he added. “I think our leadership is busy trying to find common ground. I’m sure that discussion involves some outside pro-life groups as well. I think we’ll get to the same place, but if people have concerns, we ought to stop and listen.”

“It’s not as if we’re having a pro-life, pro-choice debate,” Cole said. “It’s, ‘What’s the appropriate language? Are we really saying what we mean here.’”

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a sponsor of the bill, said that “the fact that we’re having amicable discussions right now is a tremendous positive.”

Ellmers was one of several House Republicans – most of them women – who expressed concerns about the bill during a closed-door meeting at the House and Senate Republican retreat in Hershey, Pa., last week.

Her position caught Republican Majority for Choice, a pro-abortion rights group, by surprise. The group was urging Republicans to oppose the bill and didn’t have her on its radar screen, said Mallory Schwarz, a spokeswoman.

“This is an issue that’s been a difficult issue for the party,” Schwarz said. “It’s cause a lot of damage . . . even though we are the majority. It’s positioning the Republican Party as more extreme.”

The White House on Tuesday issued a veto threat, saying that the legislation “would unacceptably restrict women’s health and reproductive rights and is an assault on a woman’s right to choose.”

Nearly 99 percent of abortions in the U.S. occur before 21 weeks, according to The Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who led the House Republican debate Wednesday over a procedural matter related to the bill, is a strong supporter of the legislation. Foxx said on the House floor that polls show most Americans oppose abortion at 20 weeks or later.

A Gallup poll in 2012 found 64 percent of respondents said abortion should be illegal in the second trimester of pregnancy, while 27 percent said it should be legal. The rest said it depended on circumstances or that they had no opinion.

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