What the Rebellion Over an Abortion Bill Shows About the New GOP

In the midterm elections, the Republican party talked the women-friendly talk. Now, in the new Congress, it was forced to walk the women-friendly walk.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, listens during a news conference after a House Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

It started as a show. Even if the House, on Thursday, had passed the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Act,” which would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, President Obama was certain to veto it. House Republicans knew this, and must know, too that only 1.4 percent of abortions nationwide would be affected by the bill. But it was a matter of principle: rolling out the legislation on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade was signal to the base of what the new, more-Republican-than-ever Congress stood for.

And yet as it happened, the party had not reckoned with exactly how it had won its new majority: by courting a majority-female electorate with an expanded slate of female candidates, and rhetoric set on narrowing the Democratic-leaning gender gap. Last November’s midterm elections brought the number of women in Congress into the three-digits for the first time. That may not be 20 percent of Congressional representation, but it’s still significant, as the House Republican leadership saw this week.

There was not—not exactly—a rebellion over principle, but it showed that the new Congress had a slightly adjusted perspective, that the GOP tent is a just little bit bigger. On Thursday, John Boehner, the speaker of the House, sent out a press release fully of classic Republican rhetoric: "respect for the sanctity of innocent life has made me who I am, and it is what has made America, America.” That recommitment, framed in personal history and as a matter of patriotism. was made with his party’s red-meat stable in mind: white male voters, who voted Republican 64-34 percent in the midterms.

But Representative Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican, who led the group of women that objected to the bill, is pro-life, too. (There are more women in Congress than ever before; there are also more anti-abortion women in Congress than ever before.) Ellmers, a registered nurse, once had been on board with the “Pain Capable” bill, but voiced concern that it limited exemptions for victims of incest and rape to only the women who had reported abuse to police. Why not include all rape victims? On Wednesday, she said, “The issue becomes, we're questioning the woman's word “We have to be compassionate to women when they're in a crisis situation."

She said Thursday, “The thing is, I am pro-life. I believe in the sanctity of life. I believe that life begins at the point of conception.” But even to a pro-life woman, the strict absolutism was unnecessary, unfeeling, overboard. Plus she worried that the bill risked alienating young people, especially young women, whom the party needs.

The vote on the bill was called off abruptly, an ungraceful hiccup, and the GOP substituted a different bill, this one banning federal funding of abortion. This less-contentious vote went down smoother. The Republican leaders in the House might have been able to finagle a way to push the bill through, but it wouldn’t have looked very good to pass, if Republican women had rejected it. That’s the tension of the party today: the twin commitment to the platform and its pillars, and to bringing more women into the fold. Caving this week to Ellmers was an acknowledgement by the GOP that women have a distinct perspective on reproductive issues, one that has to be listened to. However slowly, the party is evolving, adapting: elections have consequences.

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