AOL: House Republicans Revive Abortion as Hot-Button Issue

This article appeared online at AOL on February 8, 2011.

House Republicans Revive Abortion as Hot-Button Issue
Andrea Stone, Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The annual March for Life disbanded on Capitol Hill last month, but the controversy over abortion lingers on as Republicans in Congress put the perennial hot-button issue at the top of their agenda this week.

Several bills to cut funding for abortion services are the subject of hearings and news conferences by GOP lawmakers and their socially conservative allies:

  • The House Judiciary Committee today held a hearing on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. The bill would make permanent the annually renewed Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding for abortion and would forbid payments to private health insurance plans that cover abortion even when the cost of such coverage is paid for with private funds.
  • The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health hears testimony Wednesday on the “Protect Life Act,” a bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. It also would prohibit federal funds from going to health plans that cover abortion services and would include “conscience rights” to protect hospitals that refuse to perform emergency abortions to save pregnant women’s lives, even though such procedures are required by a long-standing federal law.
  • Anti-abortion rights groups plan a news conference Thursday to support a bill introduced Monday by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., that would cut off $317 million in federal funding to family-planning groups that perform abortions. The measure follows a sting by the anti-abortion group Live Action against Planned Parenthood, which fired an employee caught on video giving questionable advice to a couple posing as a pimp and an underage prostitute.

“This week is a trifecta of pro-life activity,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.

The view from pro-abortion rights groups was decidedly less sunny.

“Collectively, these bills are an unprecedented assault on women’s health, would take away health care benefits and rights women currently have, would impose new restrictions that go far beyond current law and are opposed by a significant majority of Americans,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

“This is the most radical anti-women agenda we’ve seen in a very long time,” said Emily’s List spokeswoman Jess McIntosh.

November’s election sent 43 new abortion opponents to the House and sent 30 pro-abortion rights lawmakers packing, according to a count by Planned Parenthood, which tallies the current “pro-life” caucus at 249. That’s a far more conservative landscape than abortion opponents faced two years ago when they rallied unsuccessfully to overturn Roe v. Wade in a Washington where Democrats controlled the White House and both sides of Capitol Hill.

But while there were moments in the 2010 election in which abortion became a major issue, jobs and the economy propelled most campaigns. The tea party movement that played such a pivotal role in GOP gains may have included social conservatives, but its main concern was reasserting fiscal discipline.

Indeed, several movement leaders urged in a letter to Republican leaders that they focus on shrinking government and not view the election as “a mandate to act on any social issue.”

A Gallup poll shows the public evenly divided along “pro-choice” and “pro-life” lines, with fewer than one in five favoring banning abortion in all circumstances.

Liberals have cited such statistics in attacking the GOP for a return to the culture wars following campaign promises to focus on jobs and the economy even as journalistic fact-checkers have questioned the premises upon which the bills are based.

In a blog post on the Emily’s List website, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, whose Democratically controlled chamber is unlikely to act on any bill that would further limit abortion, called the renewed focus a “bait-and-switch on the American voters.”

“The 2010 elections were about one thing: jobs,” they wrote. “So what on earth is going on in the GOP-controlled House?”

Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life said it was a “myth” that the tea party cares little about social issues, insisting that most oppose abortion. As for the charge that Republicans have ignored calls to trim the size of government, she said cutting funds to abortion providers is “a good place” to start.

“This Congress is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time,” she said. “Just because they are addressing economic issues doesn’t mean they can’t also address social issues.”

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said the flurry of activity in the opening days of the 112th Congress is all about the next election.

“The anti-abortion bills are a message of reassurance to the oldest and most loyal elements of the conservative coalition that their concerns have not been pushed aside in favor of the pre-eminently fiscal concerns of the tea party, which seem to be consuming all of the Republican oxygen,” he said.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato agrees. “Social conservatives have been feeling unloved and insecure lately because of the GOP’s intense focus on dollars and cents,” he said. “Plus, there is enduring suspicion that Republican leaders would prefer to sweep controversial social issues under the carpet.”

Sabato referred to a rift in the developing 2012 GOP presidential field over how much to stress abortion and other hot-button social issues such as gay marriage.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has enraged anti-abortion groups with his advice to switch on the “mute” button when it comes to divisive social issues like abortion. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour also has warned against “taking your eye off the ball” of economic and budget issues by focusing too much on other things.

Most other GOP presidential hopefuls such as former Sen. Rick Santorum — who caused a stir recently when he linked abortion and race in questioning President Barack Obama’s stance — are embracing the issue.

Yet the new-found energy among abortion rights opponents has seen some overstepping.

The inclusion of the term “forcible rape” to narrow the definition of what constitutes rape in Smith’s bill prompted a Jon Stewart parody. Embarrassed Republicans eventually dropped the language.

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