Republicans Face Showdown With Religious Right Over Dropped Abortion Bill

House Republicans last night withdrew the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, following objections from women in their caucus and members from moderate districts that the bill would alienate young voters and women.

For Republicans to drop the bill the night before today’s annual March for Life is (and I don’t exaggerate here) shocking. Republican legislators have long used the March for Life as a easy way to take a stand in front of throngs of the most ardent anti-choice activists, and they only need to travel steps from their offices to do it. They had planned a vote on the bill to coincide with today’s march, and the bill’s passage would have enthralled participants, as the anti-choice movement has lobbied for years to ban abortion based on dubious claims about a fetus’s ability to experience pain.

But Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Jackie Walorski (R-IN), and others had objected to the bill, protesting that younger voters are less interested in an emphasis on social issues.

Late last night, after the Republicans had shelved the bill, the Family Research Council sent out an email urging followers to contact their representatives to vote for the bill and “defend it on the House floor.” David Christensen, the group’s Vice President for Government Affairs, added, “The anniversary of Roe v. Wade is not the time to get weak kneed and Members need to hear from you.”

Mollie Hemingway’s excoriation of the Republican leadership at The Federalist this morning signals the reaction that is likely to roil the party in the months to come. This fissure will also trigger heightened discussion of abortion by 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls, which will mirror the congressional divide between hardcore abortion opponents and those worried about alienating young and moderate voters. The candidates courting the religious base will stop at nothing to prove their bona fides. In other words, all the candidates.

Arguing that pro-life activists were promised passage of the bill, Hemingway writes that Republicans somehow managed to turn an easy opportunity for a political win into a “disaster:”

What in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks just happened? 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.

Hemingway accuses the House Republicans of lacking “the cojones to fight,” along with public relations skills and a political strategy. But most crucially, she calls into question the party’s ability to rely on the base for support:

This sabotage of the pro-life movement over what may have been a power struggle happens at a time when many pro-life activists have grown weary of being used by the GOP for electoral victory only to be forgotten weeks later when it’s time to vote. . . .

Pro-lifers aren’t unfamiliar with such betrayals but as more and more grassroots voters are learning that the Republican Party is loyal to corporate interests when it counts while giving weak lipservice to the base when it doesn’t, the rift widens.

This is the most significant conflict pressuring the relationship between the Republican Party and the religious right in recent memory–even more than the perceived acquiescence of some Republicans to the legalization of marriage equality. After dropping the abortion ban bill, the House will vote on a bill to (once again) ban federal funding of abortion, seen as a conciliatory, but insufficient “swap.” That legislation is more routine, and far less emotive for the base. Given that the House leadership pulled the abortion ban bill just hours before the March for Life is also shattering to the base’s overconfidence that public opinion, even in Republican-held districts, bolsters an unshakable drive for legislators to put abortion restrictions at the top of their agenda.

The religious right has periodically threatened to abandon the GOP over its supposedly inadequate dedication to its issues, an effort to push candidates further right. In this case, it’s difficult to overstate the level of actual anger the base will bring as a result of the withdrawal of a signature bill on their most politically resonant day of the year: the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Because the withdrawal of the bill came over the objections of some Republican members, and provides such a concrete example of perceived betrayal, pressure from the base will stir greater intra-party conflict, and a battle for the support of religious conservatives. The great division to watch over abortion in the coming months won’t be between the pro- and anti-choice camp; it will be between Republicans, all of whom say they are committed to the cause, but some of whom say the cause just isn’t a priority anymore.


At the ProLifeCon, the pre-March for Life gathering at the Family Research Council, FRC president Tony Perkins described the legislative maneuvers as being of the “devil is in the details” and “sausage being made” variety. In other words, he seemed confident that the House leadership would revitalize the bill for a vote at a future date.

At the same time, he said he hoped voters would contact the Republicans who reportedly were responsible for stymying the bill, notably Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Jackie Walorski of Indiana, and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

This afternoon, there is a protest planned outside Ellmer’s House office. In a press release, Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, which helped organize the protest, said, “Congresswoman Ellmers and the republican party betray innocent children and their mothers by pulling ban on abortions after twenty weeks.”

Think of this as the bravado strategy: that these activists are confident the (mostly male) Republican leadership is on their side and will eventually carry out their agenda. The strategy will involve marginalizing and pressuring objectors like Ellmers — which, given that only one female representative defended the bill last night, might just pile on the concerns that led to shelving the bill in the first place: that the GOP is hostile to women.