GOP Abortion Bill Punt: Sell Out or Smart Politics?

GOP Abortion Bill Punt: Sell Out or Smart Politics?
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There they go again, those accident-prone Republicans, down the rabbit hole on abortion and rape ­­— just as voters said in November that they cared most about the economy.

That’s how some viewed what happened in the House this week, when Republican leaders swapped out a bill that would make abortion after 20 weeks illegal after some members objected to a provision that would allow exemptions in rape and incest cases only if the victims had reported the crime to police.

The controversy could also be read as the rise of the GOP’s more moderate wing after years of conservative domination. North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers led a group of Republican women, and some men, against the bill in its current form, and is already being threatened by conservatives who say she torpedoed legislation the party supports. Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, considered one of the GOP conference’s centrists, lamented that his party was taking up “an issue that most of us didn’t campaign on or really wanted to engage on at this time” in just the third week of the new Congress.

Others have observed that the drama over the bill exposed even deeper divisions within an expanded Republican majority on an issue the party is supposed to be united on. It was supposed to be an easy vote — it passed in 2013, after all — and an especially symbolic one deliberately coinciding with the March for Life in Washington and the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  

There are many ways to look at what happened in the House, and several observations can be accurate. But it is also possible to view it as an attempt by Republicans to save themselves from themselves — taking extra caution with any legislative provision dealing with rape — especially with the 2016 presidential election already underway, along with top Senate races in blue or swing states.

The GOP’s problems with the word rape are well documented, having helped cause at least two big Republican Senate losses in Indiana and Missouri in 2012. The party learned from those mistakes in its recruiting and campaigns and went on to collect nine seats and the Senate majority in 2014. The Democrats’ war-on-women charge also fell flat in places like Colorado and Iowa.

Recently a couple of Republican members brought concerns over the rape reporting provision to the attention of Ellmers, a co-sponsor of the bill and chair of the Republican women’s policy committee. Ellmers voiced the concerns to GOP leadership during the conference retreat last week, and opposition grew from there.

Last week at this time, Ellmers told the National Journal that she was also concerned about the timing of the bill, noting that Republicans “got into trouble” before and need to show be careful. “The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn't be on an issue where we know that millennials — social issues just aren't as important [to them]” she told NJ.

The congresswoman from North Carolina has said that the language of the bill put lawmakers in danger of questioning a woman’s word, and that Republicans and Democrats need to show compassion for women in crisis situations.

“Women lawmakers aren’t doing this because they’re wanting to gain new voters in the party. The concerns are the reporting requirements and the effect that has on women,” a spokesperson for Ellmers told RCP. “Their concerns are, we don’t like this provision because it harms women.”

Whether Ellmers and the Republican opponents of the bill intended to or not, addressing the rape issue could be considered productive, an example of the party addressing potential pitfalls, and shore up the party’s image among women, who make up over half of the electorate. “Better safe than sorry,” said John Feehrey, a Republican strategist and former congressional aide, about taking time to sort out the language.

Critics argue that Ellmers’ timing is suspect. They point out she voted for the same bill in 2013 and could have led this charge at an earlier time (her aides say the rape provision was added in later during a vote on the rule). Some take issue with her argument that younger voters don’t care about social issues, pointing to polls that show a big majority support making late-term abortions illegal.

The bill would have had a difficult time overcoming a filibuster in the GOP-controlled Senate. President Obama was sure to veto it, even if it did make it through the upper chamber. But critics of Ellmers and the timing of the revolt argue the bill would have been a feather in Republicans’ cap in 2016.

“This is one of the few social issues that the Republican Party can use as a wedge issue to make Democrats look like the extremists that they are,” said one Republican strategist, arguing that the objectors forced unnecessary public frenzy. “Supporting the abortion of a 5-month-old baby is well outside the mainstream. Hillary Clinton, who once claimed that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare,’ would find herself on the fringes supporting late-term abortions.”

Ellmers and other dissenters, including Indiana’s Jackie Walorski, say they would have ultimately supported the bill if it came up because they oppose abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Aides say they want to bring the bill back up again once the language is changed, but it is unclear when that would take place.

In the meantime, House Republicans re-upped a bill to deny taxpayer funding for abortions. It passed on a party-line vote. 

While some Democratic lawmakers lauded the attempt by moderates to delay the bill, activists aren’t going to let the GOP off easy on this issue. “Though the next election seems far away, women are watching and will not forget that they advanced this radical anti-woman agenda and failed to fight for policies to give families a fair shot,” said EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock.

Ellmers is also getting hit hard from the conservative blog, RedState, led by Erick Erickson. In a post on Thursday titled “The Pro-Life Movement Must Stop Being Whores of the Republican Party,” Erickson wrote, “Maybe it is time for a third party to give the GOP competition. Yesterday, the GOP threw its base under the bus."

Time will tell whether Ellmers’ move helps or hurts her and the party in the long term. It’s clear now, however, that efforts to clear the GOP’s name when it comes to the delicate language regarding rape can often just bring more attention to it. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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