Amid growing internal opposition, House Republicans on Wednesday night canceled plans to vote on a bill to ban late-term abortion. The resistance was led by an increasingly influential group of female Republican representatives, who bucked the party leadership and threatened to defeat the measure in what would have been a dramatic and potentially embarrassing floor vote.
Instead, Republican House members on Thursday passed legislation to further restrict the use of federal money to pay for or subsidize abortion. That vote, though, was nothing more than a symbolic nod to activists marching on Washington today in protest of the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, which protects abortion as a fundamental right. There is little in Thursday's measure, which is nearly identical to one passed this time last year, that doesn't already exist in federal law.
But the political fiasco over the abandoned bill underlines just how little the Republican leadership has learned — or how much they've chosen to ignore — about the changing power dynamics in Washington, D.C., and across the country. Even with an increasing number of women in prominent positions in the GOP ranks, Republican leaders seem incapable of addressing their concerns until they've swollen into a headline-grabbing public feud.
Same mistakes: The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), was always a losing proposition for most mainstream Republicans. The party has been working double-time to erase memories of the 2012 election cycle, when they lost winnable Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana after GOP candidates alienated voters with a barrage of bizarre and extreme comments on rape and abortion. Democrats seized on those foul-ups, re-upping their argument that Republicans were engaged in a "War on Women," a turn of phrase the GOP simultaneously rejects in its rhetoric but bolsters with the heavy-handed proposals in Franks' bill.
The chain of events that led to Wednesday night's reversal is instructive. It shows a Republican Congress at odds with itself, increasingly desperate to placate anti-abortion extremists in its ranks while presenting a more moderate face to female voters, many of whom hold strongly negative views of the national party.
In 2014, the strategy mostly worked. A number of Democrats, like Colorado's former Sen. Mark Udall, were criticized for cynically focusing on women's issues at the expense of other important local matters. Udall's challenger, Cory Gardner, supported a strongly anti-abortion "personhood" amendment during his time in the state legislature, but disavowed it on the campaign trail after Democrats pounced. On Election Day, now-Sen. Gardner won 51% of the vote, defeating the incumbent Udall by 7 points.
But Republicans, emboldened by their sweeping victories, have already begun to abandon the strategies that were so important in delivering them control of the House and Senate. CNN reports that debate inside a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill became so "tense" and "emotional" that congressional aides were "kicked out" of the room. A day earlier, two female House members, Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) announced they would withdraw their names from the list of the bill's cosponsors.
From there, a mostly quiet revolt quickly gained members and volume. Eventually, as the Washington Post reported, the calculations began to change and "aides said that leaders were eager to avoid political fallout from a large number of female Republicans voting against an abortion bill in the early stages of the new GOP-controlled Congress."
Lesson Learned? "It is encouraging that some politicians are starting to recognize that it is a political vulnerability to attack women's access to abortion and other health care," Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in a statement Thursday afternoon. "But it would be better if they recognized the real impact that these attacks have on women's lives."
Richards' first point is undeniable. In an attempt to save face after the troubling episode went public, Franks told the Post, "I've maintained an open heart, because I realize that all of the people involved have sincere perspectives and have knowledge and experiences and information that I don't have. ... So my heart is open — my desire here is not a political victory."
On that final note, there can be no doubt. Political victory — the substantive kind; not just in off-year election cycles — seems a long way off for Republicans, who four decades after Roe v. Wade are still chasing shadows and pursuing fights that only further alienate them from the female voters they covet at the polls, but discount just about everywhere else.
Road to ruin 2016: The bill scrapped on Wednesday night sought to make it illegal to obtain an abortion after the 20th week of a pregnancy. Alone, it would have passed with little fanfare. But it was the authors' insistence on a provision requiring women to provide a police report as evidence when seeking a rape exception that mobilized the internal backlash.
"The rape exception will be part of the bill," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told anti-abortion activists at Thursday's annual "March for Life." "We just need to find a way definitionally to not get us in a spot where we're debating about what a legitimate rape is. That's not the cause that we're in."
If only. For Graham, who's hinted at a run for president, and other Republicans trying to appeal to a national audience, this is the absolute last thing on Earth they want to be discussing ahead of the 2016 elections. But with their colleagues in Congress sipping a little too hard on the overwhelming new power granted by voters last year, the GOP is in danger of swerving down a familiar road to Election Day ruin.