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House Republican Leaders Drop Effort To Ban Some Abortions

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

House Republicans made an abrupt switch today on an anti-abortion bill. A vote had been scheduled on a measure that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Instead lawmakers went for a bill that bars federal funding for abortions, something that is actually already part of current law. The more innocuous vote happened as anti-abortion demonstrators marched just blocks away. Ahead, more on 20-week bans in states and how often abortions happen passed that point. First, though, NPR congressional reporter Juana Summers joins us from the capital. Juana, what caused the breakdown over this bill?

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: The breakdown really happened when a number of Republican women within the conference, as well as some moderate Republicans, were unhappy with one part of this measure that would allow for abortions in the case of rape, but only if the victim had reported the incident to police. Lawmakers argued that that exemption and that language could potentially put unfair pressure on victims or survivors of rape. And, still, others said that Republicans should not be getting into that kind of a social issue.

Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona, who sponsored this bill, told me today that the bill is not dead. And he's received assurances from House leadership that it will later come to the floor after some of that language has been tweaked. But there are, of course, also some politics here. This vote is, as you noted, scheduled to coincide with today's March For Life. And that put thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators very close here at the Capitol.

Leaders had pushed back on postponing the bill because of that, but there's also an optical concern that it'd be a little awkward to have a vote on anti-abortion legislation on the House floor that had vocal opposition from some GOP women, and that's especially as the party's looking towards 2016 and trying to broaden its appeal to both women and younger voters.

SIEGEL: Well, let's stick with the politics here. What does this tell us about the House of Representatives?

SUMMERS: What this tells us is the 2014 election gave the House a historically large Republican majority. And if you look closely at that majority it includes more moderate Republicans from swing districts. And they're more likely to buck their party's leadership on issues like this one as well as what we saw a few weeks ago with the spending bill that would've rolled back President Obama's changes to immigration. Worth noting - in recent history, a similar version of this bill easily passed the Republican-controlled House in 2013. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had said he'd bring this bill up for the vote, despite the fact that the White House has said it would veto it.

SIEGEL: So how are our Democrats in Congress responding to all this?

SUMMERS: Women's rights groups and Democrats had denounced the 20-week abortion bill that Republicans had hoped to pass as dangerous and unconstitutional. On the floor of the House earlier today, New York Democrat Louise Slaughter ridiculed Republicans' apparent inability to pass this bill, but she said House Republicans have passed no shortage of bills that look a whole lot like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Can't pass that one. Just take the next one. Their insistence on attacking women's health seemingly knows no bounds.

SIEGEL: So what about the bill that was passed today? The Congress has been banning federal money for abortions for decades. What's any different here?

SUMMERS: That's exactly right, and this bill would just make that permanent. And Republican supporters of this bill tell me that it also tightens restrictions to make sure that abortions are not funded under the Affordable Care Act.

SIEGEL: OK, that's NPR's Juana Summers at the Capitol. Thanks.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.