House abortion bill switch reveals emerging clout of moderate Republicans

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), after years of butting heads with tea party Republicans, now faces a rise in moderate voices.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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After spending the last few years butting heads with his most conservative members, House Speaker John A. Boehner has a new headache: a revolt by moderates.

Tired of staying quiet while tea-party-minded conservatives pull the Republican majority further to the right, more temperate voices are starting to rise in the new GOP-led Congress.

Female lawmakers pushed the party to drop Thursday’s planned vote on legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, forcing leaders to abruptly switch course and pass a different antiabortion bill.


Last week, a surprisingly large group of 26 House Republicans refused to support an amendment that called for ending deportation deferrals of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Those dissenters came within one vote of tanking the measure aimed at so-called Dreamers.

Most of these Republicans bristle at being called moderates, preferring to be seen as pragmatists worried that the party’s hard-line policies will backfire with voters, particularly in the 2016 presidential race. Many hail from moderate electoral districts in California, New York and Illinois, where conservative positions on immigration, abortion and gay rights are unpopular.

These lawmakers warn that Republican message votes, which may appeal to party stalwarts but have little chance of overcoming Democratic filibusters or presidential vetoes, will only serve to complicate their own reelections and leave the GOP with little to show for its new majority.

The shifting terrain represents an unexpected — but not wholly unwelcome — new challenge for Boehner as he struggles to control his party.

Rather than trying to appease conservatives by pursuing bills that have little hope of becoming law, GOP leaders, who have had their own battles with the party’s right flank, suddenly find themselves with a faction of vocal Republican lawmakers who say they are interested in scoring legislative victories rather than political points.

“I’m a practical Republican,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, a newly elected lawmaker from New Jersey who voted against the Dreamer-deportation measure and raised concerns about the antiabortion bill, despite his opposition to abortion. (He and his wife opted to proceed with a pregnancy even after learning their daughter would be born with special needs that eventually claimed her life at age 11.)


“This to me is about jobs. It’s about the economy. That’s, I think, what the American people want the most,” said the former mayor and businessman. “Not to fight, not just to have symbolic bills, but to do things that improve the lives of people ... doing things that actually get our economy working. That’s why I came here. Is that part of a broader trend? I hope so.”

All the women leading the revolt this week emphasized that they opposed abortion, but they expressed concern over the bill’s language.

“It’s all about saving a baby,” said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who was involved in the talks. “There just are differing opinions about what should have been in the bill.”

The female lawmakers and others worried that the bill’s exemption for “reportable” rapes evoked the widely condemned comment by former Republican Rep. Todd Akin that pregnancies rarely result from “legitimate rape.” Not only did Aiken lose his 2012 Senate bid in Missouri, but his remark drew unwanted national attention to the GOP’s approach toward women’s issues.

The bill made exceptions to the 20-week ban in cases of incest, when the life of the mother was endangered or after “reportable” rapes, effectively requiring women to report the sexual assaults to police before they could obtain an abortion.

Thursday’s vote was set to coincide with the annual March for Life rally — a popular antiabortion event in Washington held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark Roe vs. Wade case that made the procedure legal nationwide.


But problems emerged during last week’s Republican retreat in Hershey, Pa., when a few lawmakers, including Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, raised concerns. Ellmers, who nevertheless said she would have voted for the bill, was among those who opposed last week’s immigration amendment targeting Dreamers.

Talks among Republicans continued during a 90-minute closed-door meeting Wednesday morning until leadership realized the votes could be lacking. They abruptly pulled the bill late Wednesday night, rather than risk the embarrassment of having a group of Republican women vote against it.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the bill’s sponsor, said it was a “profound disappointment.” But lawmakers predicted that the legislation would be tweaked to remove some of the offending language. GOP leaders promised to hold another vote later in the session.

In its place Thursday, House Republicans passed another measure, 242 to 179, that restricts already-limited federal funding for abortions, largely through government employee insurance policies or the subsidies provided to some who purchase policies as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Three Democrats supported the replacement bill. But Democratic leaders said the change of heart among Republicans was more about improving the optics for voters than moderating their polices.

“If for cosmetic reasons they thought that wasn’t a good idea, now they’re going to a much worse bill,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the minority leader. “I don’t know what the progress is and how moderate the influence was there.”


The White House said it would recommend the president veto the new bill.

Twitter: @LisaMascaro