Republicans Rekindle Abortion Debate on Capitol Hill

BY Quinn Bowman  February 8, 2011 at 8:36 PM EDT

Throughout the 2010 midterm election cycle, one of the most familiar, and accurate, narratives was that social issues had played a very diminished role in the fight for control of Congress. Cultural battles that have divided America since the 1960s, such as abortion rights and gay marriage, were almost completely eclipsed by rhetoric about health care, jobs and fiscal policy.

But in one of his first news conferences as speaker of the House, John Boehner announced that one of his top legislative priorities was a bill to make a ban on taxpayer funding of abortion permanent, in addition to rescinding tax benefits for health-care plans that cover abortion, sponsored by staunch abortion rights opponent Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., it has 173 cosponsors in the House,

That bill, known as H.R. 3 or the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, along with the Protect Life Act introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., are both getting hearings this week on Capitol Hill, reigniting a public fight over abortion rights. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., has also introduced a bill to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal dollars.

H.R. 3 would make permanent the Hyde amendment, which has to be renewed every year and bans taxpayer funds for abortions. The proposed bill also would eliminate any tax breaks for health care plans that include abortion coverage. According to the Congressional Research Service, current law states that while federal money can’t be used for abortions, health plans that provide abortions can receive federal dollars as long as the abortion portion is paid by private money.

H.R. 3 has already generated controversy after abortion rights groups objected strongly to language in the bill that made exemptions on the ban on abortion coverage in the case of “forcible rape” while leaving out other forms of rape. Smith’s office said the word “forcible” would be removed.

The GOP’s “Pledge to America” — a list of promises Republicans made last fall if they were to take back the House contains a promise to “codify the Hyde amendment.”

House Democrats held a news conference Tuesday to denounce Smith’s bill ahead of a Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. called the Smith bill an attack on women, and said that it would go beyond the Hyde amendment by increasing taxes on people who have health insurance that covers abortions.

“This bill is a new and very extreme assault on the private choices families and businesses make on their own health care. We must not be deceived into believing that this bill would simply codified existing restrictions on the use of federal funding. This is pure falsehood,” Nadler said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., said Republicans had “awakened a sleeping giant” by introducing a bill that would make it harder for women to choose to have an abortion and called the legislation dangerous.

Rep. Trent Franks, R- Ariz., opened the Constitution Subcommittee hearing by explaining that the designation H.R. 3 was meant to communicate how important the bill is to the House Republicans.

“Even some of us who do not consider ourselves pro-life strongly object to their tax dollars being used to pay for abortions,” Franks said in his opening statement. “We are beginning to ask the question: does abortion take the life of a child?” Franks continued, and then suggested that if it is, a genocide of children is happening in America.

Pence, who is also on the subcommittee, took the opportunity to promote his bill to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving federal dollars, while also supporting H.R. 3.

“The need to affirm the government-wide prohibition on taxpayer funding for abortion has probably never been more important,” he said. “Now is the time to look at taxpayer funding for abortion but also abortion providers.”

The abortion debate may be flaring in the House, but any legislation to pass in the Republican-controlled chamber is likely to be blocked by Democratic senators. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. have already vowed to fight against H.R. 3 if it reaches their chamber.