Abortion debate illustrates House GOP’s compromising challenge


Victory is the wrong word, according to Genevieve Wilson of Georgia Right to Life, to describe the U.S. House of Representatives’ stumbles on a “fetal pain” abortion ban she saw as too watered down.

It’s more like a cautionary tale about compromise.

“When they started out by, quote, ‘moderating,’ then more was demanded,” said Wilson, GRTL’s executive director. “And that just wasn’t going to happen. It was a very clear picture to me of why we have to stand on the principle rather than politics.”

Wilson spoke by phone Thursday on the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision as anti-abortion marchers filled the streets in Atlanta and Washington. She stood as an outlier in the anti-abortion movement; most national organizations pushed House Republicans to pass the ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation with exceptions allowed for rape and incest. Georgia passed a 20-week law without rape and incest exceptions in 2012, but a court challenge against the state law is still pending.

GRTL does not approve of rape and incest exceptions and was booted from the National Right to Life umbrella group last year amid a dispute over its no-compromise approach.

GRTL had persuaded a Georgia Republican — Rep. Jody Hice of Monroe, a minister who signed the group’s pledge during his campaign — to vote “present.” It’s unclear whether others would have joined. “I’ve got to really pray about this thing,” Republican Rep. Rick Allen of Evans said before the bill was spiked.

The most serious revolt, according to several news reports, came from Republican women and moderates who questioned the bill’s requirement that women report a rape to authorities in order to qualify for an exception. That conjured memories of “legitimate rape” and the Republican Party’s struggles with women, even though a 20-week ban itself polls well.

Unable to bridge the divide within the caucus, House Speaker John Boehner yanked the bill, a turnabout made all the more unusual because it was forced from his left.

“In this case, it was a very interesting mix of people on both ends of the conference” objecting, said Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican.

“My question for us as a people’s House is not: How do you make everybody happy?” added Woodall, ever the optimist. “It is: Can we have a fair process where folks get heard and the people’s will gets done? This effort this week was an exercise in folks getting heard.”

Boehner once again heard the competing voices of the party’s base and those more worried about the 2016 elections, as House Republicans’ swelling numbers have produced a more diverse majority. The debate becomes more fraught now that most House bills won’t be dismissed by a Democratic Senate, but rather amended and sent back by a less-conservative Republican one.

Immigration poses the thorniest of challenges. Overcoming moderate defections, the House this month narrowly voted to block several Obama administration deportation relief actions while funding the Department of Homeland Security. Its chances of earning 60 Senate votes are remote and the president has promised a veto, meaning the House eventually will have to compromise further.

Fiscal showdowns with President Barack Obama will provoke similar factions.

On abortion, House leaders’ immediate solution Thursday was to pass a bill to more strictly segregate taxpayer funds from health insurance plans that cover abortions, allowing members to blast out self-congratulatory press releases on the sanctity of life as the March for Life made its way up Constitution Avenue.

The marchers were heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, where lines could be more easily drawn.

A harsh climate

New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is keeping his promise of a more free-wheeling amendment process, in contrast to the previous leadership, and Democrats are seizing the opportunity. Last week, they turned the Keystone XL oil pipeline debate into a referendum on climate change.

In a series of nonbinding votes, the Senate agreed (98-1) that the climate is changing, was divided (59-40) on whether humans are a cause of this change and evenly split (50-49) on whether humans are a significant cause of climate change. The latter two amendments did not pass because they required 60 votes.

Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue were in the “no” column on any human causes for climate change, a position that Obama ridiculed in his State of the Union speech.

The point was to force a tricky vote for blue-state Republicans running in 2016, who could be labeled anti-science by green groups. Isakson is among those up for re-election, but red Georgia was not the target audience.

Vote of the week

On Wednesday the House passed, 253-169, a bill to expedite reviews of natural gas pipeline permits.

Yes: Reps. Rick Allen, R-Evans; Buddy Carter, R-Pooler; Doug Collins, R-Gainesville; Tom Graves, R-Ranger; Jody Hice, R-Monroe; Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville; Tom Price, R-Roswell; Austin Scott, R-Tifton; Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County; Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

No: Reps. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany; Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia; John Lewis, D-Atlanta; David Scott, D-Atlanta.

Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this column.

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