Abortion Vote in House May Be Too Late to Boost GOP

Times Staff Writer

Scrambling to pass anti-abortion legislation before they recess for fall congressional elections, House Republicans on Tuesday won passage of a bill that would make it a federal crime to evade one state’s parental consent laws by taking a minor to another state for an abortion.

But in a mark of the majority party’s struggles with its “values” agenda, Senate Republicans may run out of time to vote on the measure before lawmakers leave town at the end of the week.

That would leave Republicans with few trophies to show their socially conservative base as they try to motivate voters in the final six weeks of the fiercely contested 2006 campaign.

Some strategists fear that failure to win final passage of the bill could hamper efforts to spur turnout of a reliably Republican voting bloc -- which might mean the difference in key races around the country.

“This could be a problem,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that is working to mobilize female voters opposed to abortion in six states seen as central to the fight for control of Congress.


Dannenfelser’s warning came just days after national evangelical leaders met in Washington to intensify their push to persuade conservative voters to look past Republican legislative failures and go to the polls in November to support the party’s candidates.

The bill that the House passed Tuesday by a vote of 264 to 153 was the latest initiative in a more than decade-long campaign to chip away at abortion rights.

But aides to senior Senate Republicans said Tuesday that they could not be sure the measure would make it to the floor for a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is fending off attacks by Democrats that he has presided over a “do-nothing” Congress, is under pressure in the session’s waning days to pass crucial legislation funding the military, setting up tribunals for suspected terrorists and strengthening border security.

Faced with these priorities, consideration of the parental consent bill may have to wait until a lame-duck session after November’s election.

Republican congressional leaders had not planned to be in this position six weeks before election day. In the aftermath of the party’s 2004 electoral triumphs, in which socially conservative voters played a large role, the GOP agenda included initiatives to ban gay marriage and flag burning and to further limit abortions.

But the Bush administration focused on other issues in 2005. This year, a bid to ban gay marriage through a constitutional amendment foundered in June, as moderate Republicans in the Senate joined Democrats to block a vote on the issue.

Later that month, the Senate by one vote rejected a constitutional amendment that would have given Congress the power to ban flag burning.

The campaign to restrict access to abortions, meanwhile, has produced fewer successes than many conservatives had hoped.

“Have we had victories? Not enough,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a leading abortion foe who championed congressional passage of the controversial ban on what opponents term “partial birth” abortion three years ago.

Chabot said he could point to only two major legislative accomplishments since 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress: the abortion ban, which has been tied up in the courts, and a 2002 measure that requires a doctor who performs an abortion in which the fetus survives to turn the case over to another doctor or call 911 to have the baby transferred to a hospital.

Backers of the parental consent measure remain optimistic that it will become law, if not quite as quickly as they had hoped.

For years, state legislatures have been passing laws that require pregnant minors to notify or seek permission from a parent before they get an abortion.

About 35 states have a version of the measure on the books, which supporters say appropriately involves parents in the significant reproductive decisions of their children. Californians last year narrowly rejected such a law; Proposition 85 will put the issue before voters again in November.

Despite the proliferation of the notification measures, abortion opponents complain that some adults are helping an unknown number of minors skirt the laws by taking them to states that do not have the requirements.

In July, the Senate passed legislation that would criminalize that practice. President Bush said that he would sign the measure.

Instead of accepting the Senate bill, however, the House passed a modified version. Its author, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said that she wanted a stronger version of the measure.

Along with making it a crime for anyone to take a minor across state lines for an abortion without parental consent, the House bill added a provision requiring the abortion provider to give one of the girl’s parents or a legal guardian 24 hours’ notice before the operation is performed.

The change means the bill cannot become law without going back to the Senate for another vote.

On Tuesday, abortion opponents converged on Capitol Hill to urge the Senate to act.

“We’ve never been this close. I see victory,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who sent Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a strongly worded plea to agree to have a Senate vote before Congress recesses.

The plea was echoed by the president of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, who said in a statement: “This is the only pro-life legislation considered by Congress this session, and the Senate must get it done.”

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, charged that House Republicans were pushing the bill as a political ploy.

“It’s clear that anti-choice congressional leaders are using this controversial legislation to rally their far-right base only a few weeks before the midterm election,” Keenan said.

Critics of the bill said family problems make it difficult for some minors who want an abortion to communicate with their parents.

Joining 215 Republicans in voting for the bill were 49 Democrats; opposing it were 143 Democrats, nine Republicans and one independent.

All 20 Republican members of California’s House delegation supported the measure. All of the state’s 33 Democrats opposed the bill except Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Jim Costa of Fresno, who supported it, and Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson, who did not vote.