WASHINGTON – Two days after Republicans across the country suffered a drubbing, dragged down by their opposition to abortion rights in the off-year elections, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill appeared not to have received the memo.
House Republicans tried Thursday to use a financial services spending bill to chip away at a District of Columbia law aimed at protecting employees from being discriminated against for seeking contraceptive or abortion services. Tucked inside the otherwise dry bill was a line banning federal funds from being used to enforce that law.
But minutes before an expected vote, Republicans were forced to pull the legislation from the floor. Mainstream GOP lawmakers from competitive districts – concerned that their party’s opposition to abortion rights has alienated women – appeared unwilling to support the abortion-related restriction, sapping the measure of the votes necessary to pass.
It was the latest reflection of the deep divisions among Republicans that have prevented them, for the moment, from coalescing around a strategy for averting a government shutdown.
But this time, it was also an illustration of another disconnect – between a small group of Republicans in Congress who are trying to pivot away from an anti-abortion message that voters have rejected and a much larger coalition, including the party’s leaders, who are doubling down.
Tuesday’s election results drove home to some Republicans in Congress what they already know and fear: that their party has alienated critical blocs of voters with its policies and message, particularly on abortion. And the results stiffened their resolve to resist such measures, even if it means breaking with the party at a critical time in a high-stakes fight over federal spending.
“The American people are speaking very clearly: There is no appetite for national abortion law,” Rep. John Duarte, R-Calif., who represents a district that President Joe Biden won in 2020, said Thursday. “And there’s enough of us in the Republican Party that are going to stand against it.”
Given Republicans’ tiny majority, which allows them to lose only four votes on their side if all Democrats show up and unite in opposition, that resistance could be decisive. Between mainstream Republicans’ resistance to the abortion provision in the financial services bill and rising discontent among the hard-right flank that the legislation did not include a measure banning funding for a new FBI building, it became clear the bill did not have the votes.
Duarte said he and other more center-leaning Republicans had warned party leaders that they would be inclined to oppose other spending bills that contained “abortion language not core to a bill.” He said he would prefer that those provisions be pulled out of the spending bills and voted on separately.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who also represents a district that Biden won in 2020, told reporters that he, too, had opposed the financial services bill because of the abortion-related language.
The rare pushback from members who represent the political middle of the Republican conference came two days after Ohio voters resoundingly approved a ballot measure enshrining a right to abortion in the state’s constitution.
The message that abortion remains the most potent political issue for Democrats was clear even where abortion itself was not on the ballot.
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, rode to victory after criticizing his Republican opponent’s defense of the state’s nearly total abortion ban.
And in Virginia, legislative candidates who opposed the 15-week abortion ban proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, prevailed.
In the House, however, gerrymandering has made most Republican seats so safe that lawmakers routinely cater to the far-right wing of their party, and a slim majority has given hard-right lawmakers outsized influence. The result has been that House Republicans continue to draft legislation that is out of step with a vast majority of voters, including some of their own constituents, on social issues.
That has forced Republicans from competitive districts to take politically perilous votes that many of them fear will cost them their seats, as well as the House majority, next year.
In September, Rep. Marc Molinaro, one of six New York Republicans representing districts that Biden won in 2020, objected to an agriculture spending bill because it included language that would restrict access to mifepristone, a widely used abortion pill.
That measure, which would fund the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, ultimately collapsed on the House floor when other Republicans joined Molinaro in opposing it because of that specific restriction.
Democrats had swung into action to hammer Republicans on the issue. After the legislation was approved by the Appropriations Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm accused five vulnerable Republicans on the panel who voted to advance the bill of “putting the health and livelihoods of countless women at risk.”
Then, after the bill failed on the floor, the House Democrats’ main super political action committee hammered politically vulnerable Republicans who supported it, calling them “anti-abortion extremists.”
On Thursday, Molinaro was part of the small group of Republicans that balked at supporting the financial services bill because of the anti-abortion language tucked inside.
“There are approximately five to eight who aren’t supportive because of these provisions,” Molinaro said. “We must respect and love women faced with such difficult choices.”
Molinaro said he opposed a national ban on abortion. While he noted that he was against late-term abortions, he said he did not want to impose any further abortion restrictions at the federal level – including through spending bills.
“My constituents have reinforced my view, and results in Ohio may well confirm a position for that state,” he added.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., has long railed against her party for not doing enough to show compassion to women. She has said that GOP leaders are making Republicans like her from moderate districts “walk the plank” with abortion votes. Mace said Thursday that she was part of the group of lawmakers Molinaro was referring to who would not support spending bills that quietly tried to expand abortion restrictions.
“We can’t save lives, if we can’t win elections,” Mace posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday night as the election results became clear. “We need to talk about common sense abortion restrictions, while also promoting expanded access to contraception including over the counter.”
Still, there are major minefields ahead. Senior House appropriators are planning as soon as next week to bring up the bill that funds the Labor Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes multiple anti-abortion measures. Democrats argue those measures are aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood and making funding for Title X, the nation’s family planning program, less accessible. The legislation also would target programs that provide referrals or information about abortion.
While the bill does not single out Planned Parenthood by name, it includes a provision that would ban sending federal funds to “community providers” that are “primarily engaged in family planning services, reproductive health and related medical care.” It includes exceptions for abortions performed in the case of rape or incest, or in instances in which the mother’s life is endangered.
It is exactly the type of legislation that mainstream Republicans like Duarte are warning against.
“A lot of us in swing districts – a lot of us that want to be very respectful of where the American people are and aren’t on these social issues – are standing our ground,” Duarte said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.