Roll Call: Abortion Vote Lingers for Seven Republicans

This article appeared in Roll Call on March 2, 2011.

Abortion Vote Lingers for Seven Republicans
By Steve Peoples

Seven House Republicans stood alone in the fight to protect federal funding for Planned Parenthood. And now each of them faces attacks from the left and right, forced to walk a political tightrope because the new House GOP majority has, intentionally or not, diluted a message of fiscal responsibility with a debate over social issues.

The leader of a prominent anti-
abortion interest group this week threatened to push primary challengers on the seven social moderates, most of whom represent purple districts.

“Without question, there will be consequences,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, told Roll Call when asked about the seven Republicans. “It’s not just our group, but others are very focused on those folks, and our allies have proven a willingness to get involved in primaries when it matters.”

Abortion fights resonate nationally and help gin up both grass-roots interest in elections and fundraising pushes. But most of these Republicans could be in bigger trouble back home if they move too far to the right. Many represent socially moderate swing districts that moved to the Republican column in 2010 when the focus was on the economy and federal spending.

It remains to be seen how voters might react in 2012 if the message is clouded by a fight over abortion.

There were two freshmen among the seven Republican dissidents: Reps. Robert Dold (Ill.) and Richard Hanna (N.Y.). The others were Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Charlie Dent (Pa.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.). In his own category is Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.), who returned to Congress this year after a four-year hiatus.

Bass has long been considered a moderate. But his vote on the Planned Parenthood measure, named for its prime sponsor, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), caught the attention of New Hampshire’s most powerful socially conservative organization.

“We were disappointed when he was one of the seven Republicans to vote against the Pence amendment,” New Hampshire Cornerstone Executive Director Kevin Smith said.

“Is that one vote enough to get him primaried? Probably not. But if there are more of those votes, it’s something to watch.”

Interest groups on the left and right are pushing to make sure the Planned Parenthood vote is not forgotten, even though the provision is unlikely to pass the Senate or be signed by President Barack Obama.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week ran automated phone calls, Web ads and e-mails attacking five freshman lawmakers who voted against the Pence amendment and “to restrict women’s access to legal and lifesaving health care services while preserving taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil companies making record profits.”

Dold was among those attacked — even though he opposed the amendment — because he supported the final spending measure that included blocking the funding.

SBA List this week announced plans to spend $200,000 on radio and television ads to supplement a 14-stop “grass-roots tour” of key Congressional districts to fuel the Planned Parenthood debate.

The anti-abortion organization has no immediate plans to attack any of the seven Republicans, but it is playing positive radio spots thanking New Hampshire’s 1st district Rep. Frank Guinta (R), who split with Bass on the Pence amendment.

Dannenfelser acknowledged the Guinta ad would likely be heard in Bass’ district — which is generally considered the more moderate of the two — given New Hampshire’s size.

“I’m hoping that he hears those ads. … People like Bass could move the right way,” she said.

It’s much the same situation for Dold, who survived a crowded GOP primary last year in Illinois’ 10th district, where Obama captured 61 percent of the vote in 2008. There is no Republican in Congress serving a district where Obama earned a higher percentage of the vote.

“Illinois’ 10th District has a long history of being represented by socially moderate Republican Congressmen going back 30 years with former Reps. John Porter and Mark Kirk,” Dold said in a statement provided to Roll Call. “I am a social moderate and fiscal conservative and fit that mold as well.”

Dold added that each of the seven candidates in his packed Republican primary last year were social moderates.

Most of the Republicans faced only token opposition in 2010 primary election contests, although Bass’ race was relatively close. Neither Hanna nor Biggert faced a primary challenger last cycle.

Dold went so far as to publicly voice his opposition to the Pence amendment on the House floor during last month’s debate, becoming the only one of the Republican dissidents to do so.

He said blocking funding for Planned Parenthood would be “shortsighted and would negatively impact the lives of women who depend on these health care services.”

Dold’s and Biggert’s position on the funding was not lost on Bill Beckman, executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee.

“The irony is that when they had the final bill passage, they flipped. Both voted for it. We’re playing games here in reality,” Beckman said.

“Which is better: that they voted against the amendment and for the final bill, or vice versa? I’ll tolerate those Republicans if they vote the final bill the right way, even if they want to throw a bone to Planned Parenthood that doesn’t count.”

And just as the Illinois anti-abortion community offered a relatively positive review for those Republicans who supported keeping the funding, so did Planned Parenthood itself.

“These seven Republicans are where the majority of voters are — opposed to efforts to bar Planned Parenthood from receving federal funds,” Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye said. “These folks are in pretty much swing districts. So they are in the middle of the middle, which is where a ‘yes’ vote on Pence could be damaging.”

That said, don’t expect Planned Parenthood’s political action committee to endorse any of the seven anytime soon. Endorsements require a 100 percent pro-abortion-rights voting record, which few Republicans will likely earn, according to Sye.

Talking about endorsements is “getting a little ahead of ourselves,” he said.

That leaves the seven Republicans with lukewarm support from the left, hostility from some flanks on the right, and in an awkward position in the GOP caucus going forward. Perhaps that explains the slight edge in the statement Biggert spokesman Zach Cikanek sent to Roll Call.

“Rep. Biggert’s top priority is to cut spending and create jobs,” he said. “Unfortunately, the amendment was more about advancing a social agenda than fiscal responsibility.”

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