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Late-Term Abortion Ban a Test for GOP

House Republican leadership will soon have to decide how hard to push a controversial ban on late-term abortions sought by the party’s base in the wake of Pennsylvania abortion provider Kermit Gosnell’s three murder convictions.

So far, GOP leaders have only made strongly worded statements regarding Gosnell, and it’s not yet clear whether GOP leaders will bring a national ban on late-term abortions, authored by conservative Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., to the floor.

Leadership has not yet scheduled even a nonbinding House resolution that would condemn Gosnell’s actions, and on Monday, Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said only that his boss “supports legislation that brings to light the horrors both in the Gosnell case and when babies are killed at similar stages of development, whether born or unborn.”

A few weeks ago, Franks reintroduced legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia, the jurisdiction over which Congress has some control. But last week he announced that he would expand the bill to prohibit the practice nationwide.

“Had Kermit Gosnell dismembered these babies before they had traveled down the birth canal only moments earlier, he would have, in many places nationwide, been performing an entirely legal procedure,” Franks said in a statement.

Franks’ bill is scheduled for a hearing Thursday by the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, of which he is chairman.

A panel aide said Monday that there are currently no plans to consider the bill at the full committee level, though Franks told CQ Roll Call that Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is “very supportive of this new bill and, if anything, it has improved its chances of going forward.”

If the bill gets a markup and a vote on the House floor, it would surely satisfy conservative members of the rank and file who want the chamber to take a firm stance on the Gosnell conviction and against abortion practices generally.

By this time in the 112th Congress, House Republicans had already made an unequivocal statement that they stand against the practice with the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which passed on a 251-175 vote.

The House’s silence on the issue is notable because of the high-profile nature of the Gosnell trial and also given last week’s vote to repeal Obamacare. GOP leaders argued that the vote was scheduled for the benefit of freshmen who had campaigned on overturning the 2010 health care law and wanted to go on the record against it. In theory, the same argument could apply to abortion.

But abortion has always been a volatile issue, and leaders will have to gauge how much they want to emphasize it heading into 2014 — and 2016, for that matter. According to Franks, leadership was not involved in discussions about expanding the bill’s effect to the whole country, but rather outside groups helped push the legislation in a new direction, using the Gosnell matter as leverage.

“There was a difference of opinion among some members about whether this should be for D.C. or nationwide,” Franks acknowledged.

Republican leaders might want to spare some members the unsavory prospect of taking a vote — and having a lengthy debate on a controversial policy position that has no chance of getting signed into law in this Congress. As members of the party that by and large opposes abortion rights, some moderate GOP lawmakers could be torn between not wanting to alienate influential outside groups that “score” votes on abortion-related bills and their constituents who might see such bills as overreaching.

This could especially be true for Franks’ bill, which would seek to institute in all jurisdictions a ban that has already been instituted in nine states.

But there are fewer of those moderates around. Last summer, when the House voted on Franks’ earlier legislation, only six Republicans voted against it. One of those Republicans, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, won re-election; David Dreier of California, retired. The four others — Mary Bono Mack of Florida, Charles Bass of New Hampshire, and Judy Biggert and Robert Dold of Illinois — were all defeated in 2012.

Franks disagreed that there’s any possibility for backlash, adding that he thought the bill would be brought to the House floor under regular order. Last year, the bill won a simple majority but did not receive the two-thirds affirmative votes required to pass under suspension.

“This is a pro-life conference,” Franks said, “that believes that if we can’t protect children … then maybe it’s time to pack it in as a party.”

House Democratic leaders plan to fight.

“I think there is obviously bipartisan condemnation of disgusting actions taken by this clearly deranged individual, but using this isolated incident as some sort of vehicle to change what is the law of the land is going to be greeted with fierce opposition,” a House Democratic leadership aide suggested Monday.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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