Republican lawmakers responsible for delaying a controversial abortion bill are on notice from conservative activists in 2016.
“I believe in political retribution, otherwise you might as well close up shop,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser told The Hill.
“I think that there probably will be [primary challenges],” added Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a religious political group in Washington. “I think there will be some consequences for this.”
The House had spent weeks coordinating its vote on a late-term abortion bill on Thursday to coincide with the national March for Life rally on the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The bill, with more than 100 co-sponsors, was expected to easily clear the chamber.
At issue was a provision granting the victims of rape an exception from the ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy only if the rape was reported to police. The Justice Department estimates that nearly 70 percent of rapes go unreported, often due to victims' fear of retribution.
But a number of Republican centrists, led by Reps. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) and Jackie Walorski (Ind.), warned that a certain provision on rape would erode support for the GOP from women and young people in future national elections.
Instead, a new bill was quickly unveiled that would prohibit taxpayer funding for abortion. It passed the House largely on party lines Thursday morning.
Still, the House GOP’s unexpected retreat from its original bill is emboldening abortion rights activists to force the issue in 2016, forcing opponents of abortion on the offense.
“It was a very big gift, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to have this lifted up,” Dawn Laguens, the vice president of Planned Parenthood, said in an interview. “Roe 42 is trending on Twitter right now.”
Anti-abortion activists are bemoaning the intraparty turmoil, but also warn there will be consequences.
“It’s very messy,” said former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who now works for SBA List.
“Those things really attract the attention of people who would like to see a primary challenge,” Musgrave said, pointing to members who were “very public” about their views, like Ellmers.
The North Carolina Republican — who took just 58 percent of the vote in her GOP primary in 2014 — was at the center of the backlash, even finding protesters outside her office on Thursday upset with her actions.
Perkins promised the GOP women who delayed the bill will be held accountable.
“I don’t know what is going through the minds of some of the Republican women that changed their positions on this,” the religious leader said. “I know they’re hearing from constituents on this and they’re going to hear from more.”
For now, the two female Republican members who blocked the bill are acting as a heat shield for House Republican leaders.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told The Hill on Thursday that he’s committed to working out the kinks and bringing the bill back.
In addition, GOP lawmakers and members of SBA List who met personally with House Majority Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said they have been assured the bill will return for a vote soon.
But the high-profile defeat was crushing for groups expecting a big win on Thursday. South Carolina Republican strategist Luke Byars said it’s something that conservatives in his early-voting presidential state will remember.
“If you’re an active member of the evangelical community and frustrated and feel like things are not moving fast enough, you want to take it out on someone,” he said. “I think House leadership is going to have to answer for that.”
The controversy unfolded as thousands gathered for the annual March for Life, a rally staged on the National Mall to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision that legalized abortion.
Republicans had hoped that abortion was behind them as a wedge issue, but the flare-up ahead of a presidential year ensures it will be on the minds of base voters.
“You had an issue you could rally around and unite conservatives behind, and somehow now that gets twisted and turned into an issue that’s divisive going into the presidential primaries,” Byars said. “I’d call that a screw-up.”
Some GOP presidential candidates moved quickly to denounce the House move.
“It’s outrageous that the House leadership retreated on such an important pro-life bill the night before the Roe v. Wade anniversary,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. “The leadership should seriously reconsider.”
“I remain a strong supporter of the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also said. “It is my hope that we swiftly pass this legislation and send it to the President’s desk.”
Abortion was supposed to be a non-divisive issue for the GOP in 2015, highlighted just enough to rev up the base. Still, some Republicans are unfazed by the potential political fallout.
“I actually think the conversations we’ve had over the last couple of days have been very constructive,” said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who supported both abortion bills and met with House leadership.
“I dont think it was a setback at all,” she said in an interview. “I think there were some good points that were made and ones that will cause us to pause and think about it a bit and hear more discussion.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), another possible GOP presidential candidate, said he was “disappointed” in the outcome but that he was confident the bill would have its day.
“[Republican leadership] has committed to moving forward and pass this and I suspect they will,” the conservative 2012 runner-up said.
The surprising retreat on the late-term abortion bill comes after a 2014 election that delivered big victories to anti-abortion candidates. SBA List declared as recent as last week that their movement is poised to make major gains under the GOP-controlled Congress.
“This is a historic moment. We’re finally coming to common ground and moving toward a vote,” Dannenfelser told reporters last week.
But Democrats see the re-emergence of the issue as one that’s favorable to them in the next presidential race, when younger, often more liberal voters will be turning out in larger numbers than they did for the midterms.
“[Republican candidates] basically had to blur their record and sound like moderates in 2014. In 2016, that doesn't work that way. Republican primary voters support candidates who are as extreme as they get,” said Marcy Stech, spokeswoman for the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List.
—Cristina Marcos contributed.