January 22, 2015 / 4:53 PM / 5 years ago

Abortion debate roils U.S. House on Roe v. Wade anniversary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill permanently barring federal funding of abortions on Thursday after Republican leaders dropped harsher anti-abortion legislation due to opposition from some of the party’s moderate lawmakers.

Anti-abortion demonstrators pray in the hallway outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's legislative office on Capitol Hill in Washington January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Passage of the bill, and the setback for conservative House Republicans when the more restrictive abortion legislation was set aside, came on the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the procedure.

The abortion fight highlighted fissures within the party that wants to use its new majority to undercut Democrats as the 2016 presidential race begins to heat up.

President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House that the House-passed bill “would intrude on women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care and unnecessarily restrict the private insurance choices that consumers have.”

The bill builds on a funding ban that was mostly in place already. It surfaced on the House floor after a rift over a measure that would have prohibited abortions 20 weeks after conception.

The bill that was approved, on a mostly partisan vote of 242-179, prohibits federal subsidies for people using health insurance plans that cover abortions. It faces opposition in the 100-member Senate, where at least 60 votes are needed to clear procedural roadblocks.

A House Republican leadership aide, asked about the abrupt change in plans late on Wednesday and decision to pull the 20-week abortion measure, said, “Some concerns were raised by men and women members that still need to be worked out.”

The developments came as anti-abortion marchers converged on Washington in an annual protest of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision making it legal for women to have abortions.

A crowd of mainly young people gathered on the National Mall, which stretches from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

Republicans are in full control of Congress for the first time since 2006, after their big win in November’s midterm elections. But in addition to abortion, they are already struggling with how to deal with controversial issues ranging from immigration to how to pay for expensive infrastructure repairs.

The party’s conservative base has long pushed to chip away at Roe v. Wade, which declared that women have a right to an abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy.

At the same time, many Republicans worry that raising the entire abortion debate now could hurt their chances of luring women voters who will be so important in the 2016 presidential election.

Representative Renee Ellmers and Representative Susan Brooks have traveled around the country holding town halls with women to discuss the issues they care about.

“We have got to do a better job messaging with women in this country,” Ellmers said earlier this month at an event sponsored by Main Street Partnership, a group of centrist Republicans.  

A bill similar to the 20-week ban passed the House in mid-2013. While Republicans have since grown their majority in the 435-member House, moderates are becoming more vocal with the 2016 presidential elections nearing.

“No question, women members ... were quite eloquent about the problem with the reportable rape language,” said moderate Republican Representative Charlie Dent. That provision would have allowed women to have an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy if they were victims of rape. But they had to have reported the rape to law enforcement.

Additional reporting by Lacey Johnson; Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Tom Brown

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