The House made a foray into social issues Wednesday, passing a controversial anti-abortion bill and giving hope to social conservatives who want to tie their issues to the debt limit debate.
The measure was passed on a vote of 251-175, with 16 Democrats joining a unified Republican Conference in support.
The bill would permanently prohibit federal funding for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest or danger to the woman’s life by essentially codifying the Hyde Amendment, which has been attached to federal appropriations bills since 1976.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would also create new controls on private companies that offer insurance plans that cover abortions.
During a floor speech before the vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor characterized the bill as a moral and fiscal issue.
“At a time of fiscal crisis, this bill ensures that scarce resources are not diverted towards increasing the number of abortions in America,” the Virginia Republican said. “This bill also codifies existing conscience protections and closes loopholes that offer tax-preferred status to abortion. In short, it comports with the values of our people.”
Although social conservatives have highlighted the anti-abortion measure as being tied to federal funding, the Congressional Budget Office reported on March 15 that the bill has “negligible effects on tax revenues.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the bill a “radical departure” from the Hyde Amendment.
“It represents an unprecedented and radical assault on women’s access to the full range of health care services,” the California Democrat said. “For the first time, this bill places restrictions on how women with private insurance can spend private dollars in purchasing health insurance.”
Speaker John Boehner said current law does not “reflect the will of the people.”
“This has created additional uncertainty given that Americans are concerned not just about how much we’re spending, but how we’re spending it,” the Ohio Republican said on the floor before the vote. “Enacting this legislation would provide the American people with the assurance that their hard-earned tax dollars will not be used to fund abortions.”
The bill is unlikely to gain traction in the Senate, where Democratic leaders are resistant to taking up the measure in committee, and the Obama administration has already threatened to veto it. The measure’s supporters, however, have expressed hope that a vote in the Senate could be forced, perhaps by offering its provisions as an amendment or tying the issue to a deal on raising the debt limit.
A large group of Republican Senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), introduced similar legislation Wednesday aimed at guaranteeing that federal funding could not be used to help pay for any health insurance plan that offers abortion coverage.
Boehner has long been wary of social issues derailing his economic and spending agenda, and leadership aides acknowledged that the focus would remain on those issues, not the social side of the ledger.
For instance, although Boehner has called the anti-abortion bill “one of our highest legislative priorities,” he hasn’t brought up other measures on social issues. Even the House Republican blueprint for winning the majority in November contained few social issues, reaffirming GOP support for “traditional marriage” but bypassing controversial gay rights issues or mentioning same-sex marriage.
Anna Palmer and John Stanton contributed to this report.