WASHINGTON — With thousands of abortion protesters swarming the city in their annual March for Life, Republicans muscled broadened abortion restrictions through the House on Thursday after a GOP rebellion forced leaders into an awkward retreat on an earlier version.
By a near party-line 242-179 vote, the House voted to permanently forbid federal funds for most abortion coverage. The bill would also block tax credits for many people and employers who buy abortion coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
A White House veto threat and an uncertain fate in the Senate mean the legislation has no realistic chance of becoming law. But on a day when crowds of anti-abortion demonstrators stretched for blocks outside Capitol windows — and hours after the embarrassing GOP stumble on another abortion measure — Thursday’s vote let party leaders signal that the Congress they now command is at least trying to end abortion.
The GOP’s passage of one bill and the abrupt derailment of another forbidding most late-term abortions underscored the party’s perilous balancing act of backing abortion restrictions crucial to conservatives while not alienating women and younger voters wary of such restrictions.
Obama, out West to promote his State of the Union economic agenda, embraced the same 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion that the protesters were vilifying.
He said the decision in the Roe v. Wade case “reaffirms a fundamental American value: that government should not intrude in our most private and personal family matters.” He said the House-passed bill would “intrude on women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care and unnecessarily restrict the private insurance choices that consumers have today.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio praised the marchers in a written statement that also seemed to acknowledge discord among Republicans.
“This march is part of a longer one, and our destination is clear: to secure and protect the rights of every unborn child. When there is disagreement, we should pause and listen closely. When there is movement, we should rejoice, and the House’s vote to ban taxpayer funding of abortion is cause for doing so,” he said.
Even so, the GOP sidetracking of the late-term abortion measure sparked grumbling from politically potent allies.
In a sharp statement that singled out Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and others, National Right to Life President Carol Tobias criticized GOP dissenters on the late-term bill and warned, “Some of these lawmakers may ultimately conclude that they were ill advised to sacrifice the trust of their pro-life constituents so egregiously.”
Ellmers, who has had a strong anti-abortion voting record, was among those who had objected to portions of the late-term abortion bill. Her spokeswoman, Blair Ellis, declined to comment.
Dozens of protesters visited her Capitol Hill office Thursday to protest her role in scuttling that measure.
On the House floor, a debate that has raged virtually every year for decades was emotional, as usual.
“Abortion is not health care. It’s a brutal procedure that ends lives of unborn children,” said Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa.
“I urge my colleagues to stand with the hundreds of thousands of people out on the Mall right now by voting for this bill,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Democrats said such talk showed that Republicans were willing to subjugate women’s rights to political pandering to the crowds outside.
“Women’s rights should not be theater, it shouldn’t be drama,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
The debate took a turn for the personal when Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., referred to “hypocrites on the other side of the aisle who have counseled their own girl friends to have abortions. It’s legal.”
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a doctor who opposes abortion rights, once urged a patient he was dating to seek an abortion. His aides did not return phone and email requests for comment.
Outside, thousands of demonstrators trudged up Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court in protest of the justices’ legalization of abortion exactly 42 years ago. Some wore religious garb while others carried signs with messages ranging from “I am a voice for the voiceless” to “Thank God my mom’s pro-life.”
No. 4 House GOP leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state told the crowd that her 7-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, has intensified her commitment to the anti-abortion fight.
The approved bill would permanently block federal money for nearly all abortions — a prohibition in effect for decades but one which Congress must renew yearly. Rape and incest victims and women whose lives were in danger would be exempted.
The bill would also bar individuals and some employers from earning tax credits for insurance plans covering abortion that they pay for privately and obtain through exchanges established under Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It would also block the District of Columbia from using its money to cover abortions for lower-income women.
Thursday’s vote came hours after GOP leaders indefinitely abandoned a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, retreating in the face of a revolt by women and other Republican lawmakers that left them short of votes.
GOP leaders had planned a House vote on that bill Thursday. But rebellious Republicans complained that while the measure exempted victims of rape and incest, it did so only if those women had previously reported the assaults to authorities.
Republican leaders flinched at the prospect of forcing passage of anti-abortion legislation opposed by GOP women.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Connie Cass and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.