Upset by off-year losses, mainstream Republicans oppose abortion restrictions

Two days after Republicans across the country took a beating, dragged down by their opposition to abortion rights in the off-year elections, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill didn’t seem to get the memo.

House Republicans on Thursday tried to use the financial services bill to remove a District of Columbia law aimed at protecting employees from discrimination for seeking contraceptive or abortion services. Within the otherwise dry bill was a line prohibiting the use of federal funds to enforce the law.

But minutes before the expected vote, Republicans were forced to pull the bill from the floor. GOP lawmakers from competing districts – worried that their party’s opposition to abortion rights has alienated women – appeared reluctant to support the abortion restriction, reducing the vote needed to pass.

It was the latest reflection of the deep divisions among Republicans that have prevented them from coming together on a strategy to avert a government shutdown at this point.

But this time, it was also an illustration of another disconnect — between a small group of Republicans in Congress trying to move away from an anti-abortion message that voters rejected and a much larger coalition, including party leaders, doubling down.

The results of Tuesday’s election led some Republicans in Congress to realize what they already know and fear — that their party has alienated critical blocs of voters, particularly on abortion, with its policies and message. And the results reinforced their determination to resist such measures, even if it means breaking with the party at a critical moment in the high-stakes battle over federal spending.

“The American people are speaking very clearly: There is no appetite for a national abortion law,” Rep. John Duarte of California, a Republican who represents a district that President Biden won in 2020, said Thursday. “And there are enough of us in the Republican Party who will oppose it.”

Given the Republicans’ slim majority, which allows them to lose just four votes on their side if all Democrats show up and unite in opposition, that resistance could be decisive. Between mainstream Republican resistance to abortion provisions in the financial services bill and growing discontent on the far right that the bill did not include a measure barring funding for a new FBI building, it became clear the bill lacked the votes.

Mr. Duarte said he and other more centrist Republicans had warned party leaders that they would be inclined to oppose other spending bills that contain “abortion language that is not the substance of the bill.” He said he would prefer those provisions to be pulled from the spending bill and voted on separately.

Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania who also represents a district that Mr. Biden won in 2020, told reporters that he also opposed the financial services bill because of its abortion language.

The rare rejection by members representing the political middle of the Republican conference came two days after Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution.

The message that abortion remains the strongest political issue for Democrats was clear even where abortion itself was not on the ballot. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, cruised to victory after criticizing his Republican opponent’s defense of the state’s near-total abortion ban. And in Virginia, legislative candidates who opposed a 15-week abortion ban proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won.

In the House of Representatives, however, gerrymandering has made most Republican seats so safe that lawmakers routinely cater to the far right wing of their party, and slim majorities have given hard-right lawmakers enormous influence. The result is that House Republicans continue to craft legislation that is out of step with the vast majority of voters, including some of their constituents, on social issues.

That has forced Republicans from competing districts to take politically dangerous votes that many of them fear will cost them their seats, as well as their House majorities, next year.

In September, Representative Marc Molinaro, one of six New York Republicans representing districts that Mr. Biden won in 2020, opposed the farm bill because it included language that would limit access to mifepristone, a widely used abortion pill.

That measure, which would have funded the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, ultimately failed on the House floor when other Republicans joined Mr. Molinaro in opposing that specific restriction.

Democrats have already moved to pressure Republicans on the issue. After the bill cleared the Appropriations Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm accused five embattled Republicans on the committee who voted to advance the bill of “putting the health and livelihoods of countless women at risk.”

Then, after the bill failed, the House Democrats’ main super PAC slammed politically vulnerable Republicans who supported it, calling them “anti-abortion extremists.”

On Thursday, Mr. Molinaro was part of a small group of Republicans who rallied to support the financial services bill because of the anti-abortion language tucked inside.

“There are about five to eight who do not support these provisions,” Mr. Molinaro said. “We must respect and love women who are faced with such difficult choices.”

Mr. Molinaro has said he opposes a national abortion ban. While he noted that he is against late-term abortions, he said he does not want to impose any further restrictions on abortion at the federal level — including in spending bills.

“My voters reinforced my position, and the results in Ohio can confirm that state’s position,” he added.

Representative Nancy Mays, a Republican from South Carolina, has long criticized her party for not doing enough to show compassion for women. She said GOP leaders are forcing Republicans like her from moderate districts to “walk the plank” with pro-abortion votes. Ms. Mace said Thursday that she was part of a group of lawmakers Mr. Molinaro was referring to who would not support spending bills that quietly sought to expand restrictions on abortion.

“We can’t save lives if we can’t win elections,” Ms. Mace published on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday night when the election results became clear. “We need to discuss common-sense restrictions on abortion while promoting expanded access to contraception, including over-the-counter.”

However, there are large minefields ahead of us. Senior House appropriators plan to introduce a bill next week that funds the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services and includes more anti-abortion measures. Democrats argue that the measures are aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood and making funding for Title X, the nation’s family planning program, less available. The bill would also target programs that provide abortion referrals or information.

While the bill does not single out Planned Parenthood by name, it does include a provision that would bar federal funds from “community-based providers” that are “primarily engaged in family planning, reproductive health and related medical care services.” It includes exceptions for abortions performed in cases of rape or incest, or in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

This is exactly the kind of legislation that mainstream Republicans like Mr. Duarte are warning against.

“Many of us in swing districts — many of us who want to respect where the American people are and are not on these social issues — are standing our ground,” Mr. Duarte said.

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