Abortion fight: House Republicans accused of 'incompetence'

Anti-abortion protestors gather near the US Capitol. Image copyright Getty Images

A funny thing happened on the way to a revival of the US culture wars.

The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives had planned to pass a bill prohibiting abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy on Thursday, timed to coincide with the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalising abortion in the US.

As tens of thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators descended on Washington, DC, for the annual March for Life, however, a rebellion was brewing in Republican ranks. A group of legislators, largely female and from moderate districts, objected to a provision in the bill that only would have allowed late-term abortions in the case of rape if the victim had filed a police report.

"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," North Carolina Republican Renee Ellmers, who opposed the measure, said.

The House had approved an identical version of the bill in 2013, but - as the National Journal's Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox report, the requirement had been added to the bill at the last minute, catching its opponents by surprise.

"This time," Newhauser and Fox write, "they were prepared."

Facing the possibility of defeat on a divisive vote, House Speaker John Boehner withdrew the bill from consideration.

Although the effort to pass the 20-week ban failed, Republican leaders promised to reintroduce the legislation later in the year. They also voted for, and passed, another abortion-related bill, which strictly forbids any public funding for the procedure or insurance policies that cover it.

Still, the development has some conservatives condemning what they see as the lack of backbone in their party's stand on abortion.

"It takes a special combination of incompetence and cowardice to miss an easy lay-up like this, but apparently the new Republican Congress has it in spades," writes the Federalist's Mollie Hemingway.

The bill, she says, had broad public support - 56%, according to a 2013 Washington Post poll. Similar bans have passed in 14 states. What are Mr Boehner and his House Republicans going to do when faced with a real legislative challenge?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers has angered anti-abortion activists

"Whether the issue is a legitimate campaign against the dehumanisation of the unborn, higher education reform or an actual attempt to thwart the growth of the administrative state, a Republican Party unable to accomplish an easy task is a Republican Party that will be completely incompetent and worse than useless in a big battle," she continues.

The rape reporting requirement, she says, was a provision worth fighting for. Without it, there would be a huge loophole in the law that abortion-providing physicians could exploit.

"In fact, even Democrats who think late-term abortion should be legal with no restrictions didn't make an issue of the reporting requirement in the last two elections," she concludes.

The reaction from liberal commentators after this week's unrest, however, seems to indicate that this is political terrain they're willing to fight on. Numerous writers have cited previous Republican missteps that derailed the Senate candidacies of Missouri's Todd Akin and Indiana's Richard Mourdock during the 2012 election cycle.

Although the party campaigned largely on the economy during mid-term elections last autumn, they contend, Republicans are still intent on fighting over social issues in general and a procedure that accounts for 1.4% of all abortions in particular.

"Given control of Congress and the chance to frame an economic agenda for the middle class, the first thing Republicans do is tie themselves in knots over . . . abortion and rape," writes the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson.

Robinson's colleague, Dana Milbank, calls it a "classic bait-and-switch", in which a Republican move "catering" to anti-abortion activists "raises some questions about the genuineness of their agenda".

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Media captionAnti-abortion activists tell the BBC they've come to Washington to speak out for the unborn.

Genuineness aside, however, the reality is that the House Republicans were unable to pass an abortion bill they easily approved two years ago. While social conservatives will likely regroup, this may prove to be a noteworthy development. Where Mr Boehner had previously only had to worry about unrest on the right, Tea Party-backed flank of his caucus, he now has to be concerned with his moderate members, as well.

"The vise in which the party finds itself is easy to understand but hard to loosen," writes the Atlantic's David A Graham. "On the one hand, the party's religious base has worked hard for Republicans and expects to see results, and most elected officeholders are personally pro-life. (Pulling the bill when thousands of the most fervent pro-lifers are in Washington must be an especially bitter pill for leaders.) But everyone knows the GOP faces a demographic time bomb, since its voters are older and whiter and more pro-life than the general population, so it's risky to do anything that might make it harder to win them over."

If this is a fight, however, it has only just begun. Ms Ellmers and her fellow Republican dissenters on the bill have become the focus of anger from anti-abortion conservatives, who are threatening to unseat them in the 2016 Republican primaries.

Perhaps the culture wars aren't really over, as some have predicted. But the next battle could be fought largely within the Republican Party.

As one activist told Breitbart.com, there will be dire consequences if the Republican Congress doesn't take up a vote over the 20-week in the next two weeks.

"There will be war," she said.