Two unfamiliar faces led the latest revolt among the House Republican caucus: Reps. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina and Jackie Walorski of Indiana blocked a controversial anti-abortion measure that proposed banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The vote was timed to coincide with the annual March for Life in Washington.
The pair, along with a handful of women and other members of the GOP’s more moderate caucus, were reportedly concerned about some of the provisions in the bill, including one that permitted a raped woman to get an abortion only if she first reported the rape to law enforcement. Their concerns led the bill to get shelved by House GOP leadership, at least for the time being.
Ellmers and Walorski were co-sponsors of the legislation, which is called the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. But the backtrack began on Tuesday, when they both withdrew their co-sponsorships, records show.
Why did they get cold feet? House Republican aides, requesting anonymity to speak freely about the deliberations, told Fusion that in a closed-door conference meeting, Ellmers repeated much of her concerns expressed last week in an interview with National Journal. In that interview, she said she was worried about the legislation harming the GOP’s image with some key constituent groups with which it’s trying to make inroads — women and millennials.
"I have urged leadership to reconsider bringing it up next week,” she said. “…We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we're moving forward. The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn't be on an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren't as important [to them]."
Ellmers worked as a nurse before she was elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010. She is married to a surgeon, and she has a staunch pro-life record in Congress. Her background made her someone House Republicans could turn to for advocacy on the issue. One of her first sponsored bills in Congress was aimed at defunding the United Nations Population Fund.
Walorski, on the other hand, spoke passionately on the House floor Thursday in support of another abortion-related piece of legislation. She also was first elected to Congress during the 2010 Tea Party wave, and one of the many pro-life groups that supported her then called her record “exemplary.”
Rep. Jackie Walorski
Representatives for both Ellmers and Walorski did not respond to requests for comment about why they withdrew their co-sponsorships for the legislation.
On the surface, their concerns are valid: a 2013 Justice Department report found that only 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to police.
But cynics on both sides of the political aisle noted that Ellmers and Walorski had sponsored nearly identical legislation in 2013.
“We have a duty to protect American women and unborn children of this country from harm,” Ellmers said on the House floor.
And here’s Walorski speaking in support of the same bill, saying it was “critical for Congress to act today to protect human life”:
The disparity enraged social conservatives who felt as if they were spurned once again by the representatives they helped elect to Congress. Erick Erickson, the editor in chief of the conservative site RedState, ranted extensively on Twitter, saying at one point that he wished Democrat Clay Aiken had won Ellmers’ seat last fall.
“Ellmers supposedly has [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy’s ear on these matters,” Erickson said in a follow-up email. “It’s all very disappointing.”
Pro-choice advocates hailed the sudden about-face as a partial win, but said they haven't seen any real indication that the bill's backers have altered their position on abortion.
"I guess it's a victory that they recognize that they had political vulnerability on this," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, told Fusion. "But of course the real victory would be if they recognize this is none of their business and it hurts women's health."
Laguens criticized Republican leaders like Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who reportedly told abortion opponents at the March for Life on Thursday, "I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape," for failing to grasp the severity of the issue.
With the 20-week bill scrapped, House Republicans instead passed less contentious legislation known as the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act on Thursday, in a 242-179 vote. That bill blocks the use of taxpayer money for abortion services through private insurance plans. It also passed the House in a bipartisan vote last year, though the White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama will likely veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
As for the 20-week legislation — House Republican leaders say they are still committed to working with GOP members to address their concerns and ultimately get the bill passed.
“Given the timing and process on the pain-capable bill, some concerns were raised by a number of Members (both men and women) that need to be worked out,” the House GOP leadership aide told Fusion. “So, we’ll vote on a different bill today to advance the pro-life cause, and we remain committed to continue working through the process on the pain capable bill to make sure it too is successful.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.