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An Abortion Debate Crafted for Election-Year Ears

Today’s marquee markup in the House has nothing at all to do with Republicans’ ideas for growing the economy, creating jobs, improving health care, revamping immigration or clipping environmental regulation.

Instead, it has everything to do with appeasing the base, galvanizing the rank and file and plumping up the fundraising.

The Judiciary Committee will vote, right down party lines, to advance legislation that would create a nationwide ban on almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. GOP leaders plan to make floor debate and passage the main legislative news event in the House next week, knowing full well the legislation will never come close to seeing the light of day in the Democratic Senate.

In other words, the legislative imperatives that Congress normally pursues during the year between elections are already being supplanted by the atmospherics of an election year. Six dozen weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, efforts to get to “yes” on lasting changes in public policy are already having to compete with efforts that transform the House floor into little more than a sound stage.

There are some salient reasons for such an early starting time for the House’s biennial period of tough-vote, sound-bite, attack-ad, no-results-expected legislating — and for making an abortion bill first on the messaging list.

As a matter of internal Republican Conference dynamics, the leadership could surely benefit from a dollop of attention-getting unanimity this summer — before immigration, spending caps and the national debt apply significant pressure to the group’s ideological fault lines. And the only way to get some of that unity is to go back the timeworn, but reliable, culture-war pages in the playbook.

Twice in the past month, the troops have rebelled against measures crafted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor in hopes of putting a somewhat kinder and gentler face on the House GOP. Both would have killed programs Republicans don’t like; one would have dedicated the savings to pediatric research, the other to helping people with pre-existing conditions afford their newly required medical insurance.

There will be no such rebellion against the 20-weeks bill, because the abortion-rights divide has only become more partisan this year.

Last July, when the House voted on legislation setting that same deadline for pregnant women in Washington, D.C., just six Republicans voted “no.” Four of them lost in November and another retired, leaving Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania as the only current GOP congressman on record against such a nearly blanket prohibition.

Seventeen Democrats went against the partisan grain and voted “yes,” but only six of them are still in the House this year — yet another data point illustrating how the place has become more ideologically polarized than at any other time in the postwar period.

It’s true that 32 Republicans missed the 2012 vote, and a handful of them have the sort of voting records and safe seats suggesting they could side with Dent next week. But that’s not the case for any of the GOP freshmen. And many of the newcomers are looking to cast a floor vote against abortion rights as soon as possible, the better to ward off the sort of primary challengers on the right who pose the only viable threats to their re-elections.

That eagerness among the overwhelming number of rank-and-file members dovetails with another desire of the House leadership, which is to grant this year’s main wish of the National Right to Life Committee sooner rather than later.

Opponents of abortion rights have made the House GOP bill — by Trent Franks of Arizona — their top legislative priority. Their hope has been that the case of Kermit Gosnell, a late-term abortion provider in Philadelphia convicted last month of three first-degree murders, will galvanize support for outlawing abortions at the point when, some medical professional say, a fetus becomes sensitive to pain.

Putting the Franks bill to a vote soon after Gosnell’s conviction, and under strict rules for debate that essentially guarantee passage, will allow the GOP leadership to make an important conservative constituency happy at an opportune moment.

The vote will come just before the symbolically important end-of-the-second-quarter deadline for contributions to congressional candidates. And it will happen in time for the “Republicans are waging a war on women” rhetoric to fade for half a year before the 2014 campaign really kicks off — presumably to be supplanted by revived Cantor efforts at conservative rebranding with more of an appeal to women.

Last fall’s exit poll found Republicans losing the female vote by a substantial 9 points, with 56 percent saying abortions should be legal in all or most cases and 36 percent saying it should generally or always be illegal.

Those numbers explain the political risk-versus-reward balance the House GOP faces on the Franks bill.

And they also underscore the most notable dog-that-didn’t-bite story on the reproductive rights front this week: More than 24 hours after the Obama administration dropped its efforts in federal court to restrict over-the-counter availability of the No. 1 “morning-after” pill to young girls, not a single Republican had called for legislation to countermand the president and keep the emergency contraceptive out of the hands of teenagers.

Maybe they think one “pro-life” embrace is all they need to give this year.

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