House votes to advance abortion bill

The House on Thursday afternoon took a step toward approving a highly controversial bill aimed at ensuring that no funds from last year's healthcare law could be used for abortion services.

In a 248-173, mostly party-line vote, members approved the rule for H.R. 358, the Protect Life Act. Only 11 Democrats supported the rule, and no Republicans opposed it.

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The vote followed a tense debate in which Republicans argued that the legislation is needed because the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) was approved last year without language mirroring the so-called Hyde Amendment language, which bars federal funds from being used for abortion. While President Obama later issued an executive order to that effect, Republicans have long argued that this order does not have the force of law, and could be altered by the White House.

"Hyde only affects Labor/HHS programs, not the massive expansion of government-funded healthcare," Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said in reference to PPACA, which Republicans call "ObamaCare."

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"Thus ObamaCare, when phased in fully in November 2014, will open up the floodgates of public funding for abortion in a myriad of programs, including and especially in exchanges, resulting in more dead babies and wounded mothers than would otherwise have been the case," Smith said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said the simple attempt to apply the Hyde language to programs under PPACA is not something that Democrats should see as extreme.

"This is not something new, this is not something radical," she said.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) added that the move simply "closes that loophole" created by PPACA, while Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that Obama's executive order is "not worth the paper that it was written on."

But Democrats put up fierce opposition to the bill, including early in the debate, when Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) accused Republicans of having "misogynist" motives in advancing the bill.

Several Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the bill would go further by allowing hospitals to deny coverage to women with reproductive health crises. They also said it would prevent women from using their own money to buy health insurance that covers abortion through the health law's insurance exchanges.

"This bill is a radical departure from existing law," Pelosi said. "This legislation is bad public policy, it is the wrong priority for Congress, it is an assault on women's health, and women should know that it prevents them from using their own dollars to buy their own private insurance should they be part of an exchange."

Democrats also argued that PPACA does take on board the Hyde language that prevents federal funds from being used for abortion-related services. But Republicans shot back that the Hyde language only applies to discretionary spending, while PPACA includes billions in mandatory funding that would not be covered.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) also asked why, if PPACA funds already cannot be used for abortions, the president felt it necessary to issue his executive order.

Pelosi and several other Democrats are saying the House should be focused on passing legislation that would help job creation, rather than attacking women's rights. But Republicans bristled at the implication that issues related to abortion are somehow less important than jobs.

"I'm a little appalled at some of the comments that I've heard across the aisle, especially those that say that talking about jobs is more important than talking about saving lives," Foxx said.

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Several women from both parties were involved in the debate, and many on the Democratic side cheered when Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) argued that members of the House who are men should not play any role in advancing policies that limit women's health choices.

"Congressmen really shouldn't be even involved in making personal healthcare decisions for women. That should be between a woman, her family and her doctor," Hastings said.

The House is expected to pass the bill later tonight. On Wednesday, the White House said Obama would veto the bill if it were presented for his signature, although the Senate will not take it up once passed by the House.

The White House's Statement of Administration Policy on the bill said the bill already prevents federal funding for abortion, and that Obama's executive order "reinforces that federal funding cannot be used for abortions." It also added that the bill goes beyond this limitation by "restricting women's private insurance choices."