POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 9, 2011
WASHINGTON >> All but invisible during the midterm elections, the abortion debate has returned to Congress.
Invoking the mantra of fiscal restraint that has dominated House action since lawmakers reconvened last month, Republicans began committee work this week on two separate bills that would greatly expand restrictions on financing for and access to abortions. Another bill, one that would cut off federal dollars to women’s health care clinics that offer abortions, is expected to surface later this year.
“This House is more pro-life than it’s ever been,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the author of one of the bills to limit money for abortions.
Democrats in both the House and Senate immediately fought back Tuesday, working closely with reproductive rights advocates. They have appropriated the Republican charge from last year that Democrats were working on a liberal policy agenda instead of on job creation and the economy, and turned it on its head.
“This election was about the economy,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who joined with other Democratic senators Tuesday to decry the House bills Tuesday as needless and intrusive.
Over and over, Democrats said that by bringing up the abortion issue now, Republicans were going back on their word to focus on the budget.
Yet the bills that have surfaced on the House floor this year have been fiscal in nature, including the repeal of the health care law, which was later rejected by the Senate, and some measures designed to cut spending.
“Republicans are focused on creating a better environment for economic growth and job creation,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House, “and that is reflected in the legislation the House is passing,”
Still, Republicans in the House are clearly energized about using their new majority to reopen debate on an important issue for conservatives, especially in the context of the health care overhaul.
On Tuesday, Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader, described the new measures as “obviously very important in terms of the priorities we set out initially in our pledge to America.”
He indicated that he expected the first version of a House bill to finance the government through the rest of the year to bar spending to implement the health care law. That provision is likely to also be attacked by the Senate and the Obama administration.
One bill, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” would eliminate tax breaks for private employers who provide health coverage if their plans offer abortion services and would forbid women who use a flexible spending plan to use pre-tax dollars for abortions. Those restrictions would go well beyond current law prohibiting the use of federal money for abortion services.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., has drawn fire over language that undercuts a longstanding exemption on the ban on using federal money for abortions in the case of rape or incest; the measure narrows the definition of rape to “forcible rape,” a term that his office has never defined. Democratic lawmakers and others repeatedly hammered on the term, saying it suggested that victims of statutory rape and other crimes could not get abortions paid for with federal money.
Another bill, sponsored by Pitts, addresses the health care overhaul head-on by prohibiting Americans who receive insurance through state exchanges from purchasing abortion coverage, even with their own money. The bill is essentially a resurrection of a provision in the House version of the health care law but was not in the Senate version.
The bill would also permit hospitals to refuse abortions to women, even in emergency situations, if such care would offend the conscience of the health care providers.
“Both bills are designed to drive coverage for abortion out of health insurance plans, period,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The bills drew immediate fire from House and Senate Democrats.
“We are sending a clear message to House Republicans that their agenda on women’s health is extreme,” Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said at a news conference. “It breaks faith with a decades-long bipartisan compromise, and it risks the health and lives of women. It also punishes women and businesses with a tax hike if they wish to keep or buy insurance that covers a full range of reproductive health care.”
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, another Democrat who joined the news conference, compared the proposals to “a Third World country that’s requiring women to wear head shawls to cover their faces even if they don’t want to do it.”
As Smith’s bill provoked a spirited back and forth at a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, it also drew praise from some outside supporters.
“The federal government should not use tax dollars to support or promote elective abortion,” Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a news release.