A furious debate over abortion sundered the ranks of House Republicans Wednesday, but party leaders ultimately prevailed by a slender margin in the first major vote on their bill to undo more than a half-century of social welfare policy.
By a vote of 217 to 211, the House approved a resolution, or rule, setting the terms of debate on the bill, which would replace several dozen welfare programs with direct cash payments to the states.
The close vote suggested that Republican control of the House on welfare overhaul was more precarious than previously believed, and it emboldened Democrats to step up their attacks on the bill.
The debate Wednesday started off as a discussion of procedural questions but quickly turned to the merits of the bill itself, and it had a raw, emotional quality. Democrats relentlessly portrayed Republicans as cruel, inhumane and immoral, saying they would throw children into the streets to finance tax cuts for wealthy people.
Republicans said that nothing could be more cruel than the current welfare system - one they said had been perpetuated by Democrats - because it trapped people in poverty.
Today’s vote followed intense lobbying by Roman Catholic bishops and by groups opposed to abortion. They argued that the welfare bill, in its effort to reduce out-of-wedlock births, would encourage abortions. The bill would prohibit the use of federal money for cash assistance to children born to unmarried women under the age of 18, and would deny extra assistance for additional babies born to mothers already receiving welfare.
“This is not the way to reduce the number of children on welfare,” said Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, D-Mo., a staunch opponent of abortion. “Killing them is not the way to do it.”
The House Wednesday night agreed to let states provide unmarried teenage mothers with vouchers to buy diapers, clothing, school supplies and similar items for children born out of wedlock. But the bill would not allow cash welfare benefits for such women.
The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund joined their usual opponents, the Roman Catholic Church and the National Right to Life Committee, in urging lawmakers to vote against the rule and the bill in its present form.
“It’s just as wrong to force a woman into an abortion she may not want as to prevent her from getting an abortion she may need,” said Kate Michelman, president of the abortion rights action league.
Wednesday’s vote splintered the conservative coalition that has controlled the House for the last 11 weeks. Among the 15 Republicans voting against the rule on the welfare bill were such prominent conservatives as Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, a former director of the Right to Life Committee in New Jersey. They and others opposed the rule because it did not permit them to offer all of the amendments they said were necessary to address their concerns.
Several Republicans from south Florida also voted against the rule, saying they objected to a provision in the bill that would deny benefits to legal immigrants who have not become citizens.
Wednesday’s vote contrasted with the party discipline that Republican leaders enforced in earlier votes on other items in their Contract With America.
Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic whip, said, “The Republicans have hit children very, very hard in this bill, and I think it’s caused a backlash among some of their own people.”