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With floor votes, GOP House shifts messaging after Roe changes

It's the first time Republicans have been able to hold votes on potential implications of Supreme Court ruling

Demonstrators walk on First Street during the 49th annual March for Life anti-abortion demonstration on Capitol Hill on Jan. 21, 2022.
Demonstrators walk on First Street during the 49th annual March for Life anti-abortion demonstration on Capitol Hill on Jan. 21, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Wednesday approved two measures prioritized by abortion opponents ahead of a key messaging event, though neither piece of legislation is likely to be taken up by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Both chambers will be in recess next week when thousands of activists are slated to gather in Washington, D.C., for the March for Life, an annual rally and crucial messaging opportunity for those who oppose abortion.

The event has attracted lawmakers, federal officials and even former President Donald Trump — who became the first sitting president to address the march in 2018 and was the first to appear in person at the march in 2020. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., who co-chairs the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, are both slated to speak at the march.

Most federal politicians who participate identify as Republican, especially after Democrat Dan Lipinski, a former Pro-Life Caucus co-chair, lost his primary in 2020, and while Congress routinely holds votes on bills related to abortion, it is increasingly rare for votes to not fall on party lines or to become law.

The absence of both chambers next week limits a messaging opportunity for lawmakers and a networking opportunity for motivated activists seeking federal policy changes.

Wednesday marks the first time Republicans have been able to hold votes on potential implications from the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Last year, House Democrats held a series of weekly votes on issues related to the abortion ruling, as well as on social topics such as contraception and same-sex marriage. But by December, the marriage equality measure was the only priority to make it into law.

The first two bills up for consideration, however, portray a different GOP message from before — emphasizing post-abortion care and condemning attacks on anti-abortion centers and churches, rather than emphasizing banning the procedure itself.

Republicans say the bill from Scalise and Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Kat Cammack, R-Fla., would increase protections for an infant born after an attempted abortion.

The resolution from Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., would condemn recent attacks on anti-abortion advocates and religious facilities.

“Today we are not talking about abortion. We are talking about children,” said Pro-Life Caucus Co-Chair Cammack, on the House floor ahead of the vote. “I honestly do not understand what is so controversial about that.”

Neither measure focuses on the more traditional messages of limits to abortion based on gestation, method or funding.

“This is a poll-tested focus group effort to change the subject. We all know that attacking facilities or not providing health care to an infant is already illegal. This is a veiled attempt at distracting from the real consequences of the Dobbs decision,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “Voting on this resolution is an embarrassment.”

Both measures were teed up for fast-track consideration under the House rules package, as well as a separate bill that would ban federal funding for abortion, which would effectively making the annual rider known as the Hyde amendment permanent. That bill is not on the floor this week.

Floor action

The post-abortion care bill passed 220-210, with one Democrat, Henry Cuellar of Texas, joining Republicans. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, voted “present.”

The anti-violence resolution was adopted by a vote of 222-209, with three Democrats joining Republicans.

Republicans say neither of these measures are about abortion and could serve as common ground on shared priorities, but Democrats opposed both measures as attacks on abortion rights, calling them a distraction from other post-Roe health issues.

“This legislation isn’t about banning abortions but saving the lives of living, breathing newborns,” said Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, a former nurse and physician.

Democrats repeatedly cited a bipartisan 2002 federal law that protects and requires medically appropriate care for an infant born after a failed abortion.

“All of us, including me, the chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus, voted for it because clearly, clearly, if the baby’s born we shouldn’t kill it. Duh,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., referring to the 2002 law. “The legislation before us today is part of a concerted effort to fast-track the extreme agenda of anti-choice legislation.”

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., sought to attach her legislation that would codify abortion rights to the House rules package earlier this week. DeGette sought to attach the same legislation to a motion recommit on Wednesday. That motion was rejected 212-219.

“This resolution is an attempt to muddy the waters and distract the public from the fact that those on the other side of the aisle support a national abortion ban regardless of which state you live in,” said Chu.

Chu and other Democrats said the resolution ignores political violence against abortion facilities, which have also seen increases in attacks since the Supreme Court decision.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., separately said she plans to introduce legislation soon that would require the Federal Trade Commission to investigate crisis pregnancy centers.

DeGette, her Pro-Choice Caucus Co-Chair Barbara Lee of California, and Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts introduced a separate resolution Wednesday that would condemn all political violence against all targets, in response to the resolution on the floor.

Republicans also face mixed messaging on where federal abortion policy falls under their priorities.

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said the vote Wednesday was “misguided” and that abortion was the second most important issue for voters in her swing district, following only inflation. Still, she ultimately voted for both bills.

“If you want to get serious about saving life, then perhaps we should start with access to birth control first, because I have entire counties in South Carolina that don’t have a single OB-GYN doctor,” said Mace. “Don’t tell me you want to be serious about saving lives and not do anything about these bills that aren’t going to pass the Senate.”

Mace is one of eight Republicans who joined Democrats during a vote last year on a bill to codify the right to contraception. Five of those lawmakers are no longer in office.

She said Congress should first focus on protecting access to birth control and protecting those who have been the victims of rape or incest.

“I know you can protect women’s rights and the right to life at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive,” she said.

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