The Republican National Committee Friday blocked a resolution by anti-abortion activists that would have denied party funds for candidates who failed to oppose a controversial late-term abortion procedure. The vote came after warnings from GOP leaders that passage of the measure could cost the party its congressional majorities.
After an impassioned debate that often pitted abortion opponents against one another, the 165-member committee approved a substitute resolution that stripped out any mention of tying party funding decisions to a candidate’s stance on abortion.
Critics of the original resolution said it amounted to imposing “litmus tests” on candidates that would drive voters away from the GOP.
The committee approved a resolution that had been carefully worked out in advance by RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson and other party leaders who worked publicly and behind the scenes to defuse the issue. “A great national party must be in the business of communication, not excommunication,” Nicholson told the committee at the opening of the debate.
The substitute language reaffirmed the party’s opposition to the late-term abortion procedure, called a “partial-birth” abortion by opponents, and condemned President Clinton for twice vetoing legislation that would outlaw the procedure. The vote was 114 to 43.
Hours before the debate, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., one of the party’s leading abortion opponents, pleaded with members of the committee to reject the original resolution, warning that passage could set back efforts to restrict abortions in the United States.
“The worst thing you can do for the pro-life cause is to lose our majority,” Hyde said in a luncheon speech to the committee.
But Tim Lambert, the Republican national committeeman from Texas who sponsored the original resolution, told committee members it was time to stand for principle over political expediency.
“This is not only the right thing to do morally, it’s the right thing to do politically,” Lambert said. He added, “It’s time we put aside our political fear and act on principle.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who preceded Hyde in addressing the party luncheon Friday, also encouraged the committee to reject the proposal. Gingrich chided sponsors for advancing a resolution that he called “a tactical mistake.” He said the measure had given the “news media a field day trying to divide us” while diverting attention from Clinton’s vetoes.
The 80-minute debate revealed the continuing tensions within the GOP over abortion, and the outcome was a rare setback for anti-abortion forces in internal party battles over the issue.
The controversy also offered fresh evidence of a gulf between the party hierarchy - including many of the GOP’s largest contributors - and the growing corps of conservative activists who now dominate the party at the grass roots in many states. The gulf was illustrated by a new Time-CNN poll, which showed that Republicans said they supported the Lambert resolution 51 percent to 35 percent.
The abortion resolution grew out of anger among anti-abortion activists over the party’s decision to give more than $1.5 million to the reelection campaign of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman last year. Whitman, a strong supporter of abortion rights, became a target of attack for her veto of state legislation banning the late-term abortion procedure.
Steve Curtis, the Colorado Republican chairman, said for the party to oppose so-called partial birth abortions while continuing to provide funding to candidates who refuse to seek to outlaw the procedure was “political doublespeak of the worst kind. It is hypocrisy of the highest order.”
But John Dendahl, the New Mexico GOP chairman, said endorsing a ban on party funding over the abortion issue could put the party on a “slippery slope … at the bottom of which stands demagoguery and single-issue politics.”
Mike Hellon, the Arizona chairman, said imposing a litmus test over abortion could lead to similar efforts on issues ranging from gun control to gay rights. “Pretty soon we have a Balkanized party,” he said. “Pretty soon we no longer govern.”
Abortion rights advocates within the party cheered the outcome of Friday’s debate, even though they remain a clear minority within the party. Ann Stone, chairman of Republicans for Choice, said in a statement that the vote showed “that prochoice Republicans are welcome and are a key part of the Republican majority.” She praised party leaders, saying the GOP “is being run by adults who understand the reality of being a majority party.”
But those on the other side made clear the result will not lead to a slackening in the party’s opposition to abortion in general and the late-term abortions in particular.
“This is an issue that will not go away,” Gary Bauer, who heads the Family Research Council, said in a statement after the vote. “Tonight’s debate makes it even more likely that Republican candidates will make banning this terrible procedure a central theme in the 1998 elections.”