Published in POLITICO
A vote Thursday on a bill to outlaw sex-selective abortion is the latest step in an awkward dance between the House Republican leadership and the large faction of passionate abortion opponents in the caucus.
Anti-abortion bills percolate constantly in committee, but leadership has not been pushing to get them to the floor as they attempt to stay focused on an economic message, say sources close to anti-abortion Republican members. But for this bill, anti-abortion advocates say sponsor Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) got a vote scheduled as a concession when he agreed not to try to attach the measure to the Violence Against Women Act, which has been bogging down Republicans on a divisive social issue.
Franks said he understands why the GOP leaders are “trying to do everything they can to point out to the country that under Mr. Obama’s leadership, we have less people working.” But he argued that his abortion bill is consistent with an economic theme because “the reason we have an economy … [is] because that we in America believe that life is a gift from God.”
Despite a flurry of anti-abortion legislation when the Republicans took control of the House last year, leadership cooled on those largely symbolic votes as the contraception battles seemed to be helping President Barack Obama in the polls this spring. For instance, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who pledged in early February to overturn a health reform rule requiring contraception coverage, took his foot off the gas a month later, and the bill has not reached the floor.
In agreeing to a vote on Franks’s Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, House leaders still seem to want to get it out of the way, even if it doesn’t clear the House. It’s being brought up on the suspension calendar, which means it requires a two-thirds majority to pass. The version on the floor addresses only sex selection. A prohibition on race-selective abortion, included in an earlier version approved by the House Judiciary Committee this winter, was dropped.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel stressed that this vote will not knock the House off its economic focus.
“House Republicans are focused on the American people’s top priorities: jobs and the economy,” Steel said. “Dealing with a bill to prevent sex-selective abortion on the suspension calendar doesn’t change that.”
Sources in the anti-abortion movement say they are pleased that the bill — which they say addresses a widespread problem of discrimination against girls — will get a recorded vote. But some remain unhappy that the leadership appears to have set it up to fail.
“They like the separate attention this bill will get,” said one senior GOP aide. “But I have heard some concerns about why this bill is moving in such a way that it needs two-thirds to pass.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office declined to explain why the bill is on the suspension calendar, which is usually reserved for noncontroversial legislation. But one possible explanation is that they’re using the maneuver to exploit divisions on the Democratic side.
Democrats can either supply enough votes for this bill to pass, making it difficult for Democrats to accuse Republicans of jamming a partisan abortion measure through the House. Or they can vote it down — which could leave some Democrats vulnerable to campaign charges that they are allowing sex-selective abortions. Abortion rights groups say Franks’s proposal isn’t the right way to address gender bias, and say his measure could scare health professionals from performing or helping a women obtain an abortion out of fear of prosecution.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) denounced the Franks bill as a political gimmick, but said Democrats are not whipping against it.
“It’s a political effort, not a substantive effort,” Hoyer said. “I think [this] has come up because someone decided politically this is a difficult place to put people in.” But he said it would be wrong to interpret a vote against this bill as a vote for gender selection.
Hoyer also complained that the Democrats did not learn of the vote until last Friday.
The timing of the vote caught even many of its supporters by surprise. Cantor initially said the chamber would vote Wednesday night, but that was pushed to Thursday after several members complained that they’d been told not to expect important votes Wednesday evening and had not planned to get back from recess in time, according to sources on and off the Hill.
Franks, however, says he supports bringing this up for a vote now on the suspension calendar because it prevents members from using disputes over amendments or procedural votes to avoid taking a vote on the underlying bill — even if it means it’s unlikely to pass.
“There is no doubt that to get a two-thirds vote is extremely ambitious,” he said. But, he added, “this vote will make it very clear where people are.”
Jonathan Allen and Kate Nocera contributed to this report.