WASHINGTON — The battle over abortion takes center stage in Congress this week as two House subcommittees hold hearings on separate bills that would expand restrictions on federal funding of abortions.
The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" would eliminate tax breaks for abortions. The "Protect Life Act" would restrict use of federal funds for abortions under the new health care law. While both may pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, their prospects of passing a Democratic-held Senate or escaping President Barack Obama's veto pen are slim to none.
"They can't expect this legislation to go beyond the House or Representatives," said Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "It allows the House Republicans to do something symbolically important for their coalition base."
Still, the bills have alarmed abortion-rights advocates, who say they are attempts to attack legalized abortion — federally funded or not — through the tax code and measures to deny women access to the procedure.
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"These bills represent a new front in the abortion war," said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "The idea...of using the tax code to impose political views, that's extremely alarming."
Opponents of legal abortion, emboldened by powerful support in a Republican-controlled House, say the bills are just the beginning.
"The Republicans in the House are definitely following the promise they made to undo the damage that's been done," said Kerry Brown, a spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group.
The "No Taxpayer for Abortion Act," designated H.R. 3 and sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), seeks to codify provisions of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion but must be renewed by Congress annually.
In addition, Smith said his bill would "permanently end any U.S. government financial support for abortion whether it be direct funding or by tax credits or any other subsidy." A House Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on it Tuesday.
Smith's bill stirred a huge uproar among abortion-rights advocates by listing victims of "forcible rape" among those who would be exempted from the bill.
"Forcible rape" wasn't fully defined in the bill, but abortion-rights supporters warned that the term could be used to block access to abortion for rape victims who were drugged, unconscious or mentally ill.
A spokesman for Smith said the term was dropped from the bill Thursday after Smith concluded that the term was being "misconstrued." That wasn't enough to satisfy abortion supporters.
"The fact that it took weeks of public outrage before the new House leadership was shamed into giving up one if its efforts to redefine rape to deny women access to abortion shows how out of touch they are with the values of the American people," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Simply put, the now discarded 'forcible rape' provision is just the beginning of what's wrong with Rep. Smith's bill."
Like Smith's bill, the Protect Life Act, or H.R. 358, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), seeks to restrict the use of federal funds under the new health care law, but isn't as aggressive in terms of using the tax code. The House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, which Pitts chairs, will hold a hearing on it Wednesday.
Late last week, abortion-rights supporters turned their attention to Pitts' bill, saying it contains language that would allow hospitals to deny a woman an abortion, even if her life were in jeopardy.
Andrew Wimer, a Pitts spokesman, calls the accusation false. He said the language is an attempt to include in the health care law a "conscience clause" for doctors and hospitals that object to performing abortions.
"These are typical attacks that come up," Wimer said.
Abortion foes both in and out of Congress say they're undeterred by criticism. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that taking on abortion would be a House priority under his leadership.
"A ban on taxpayer funding of abortions is the will of the people, and it ought to be the will of the land," Boehner told reporters last month. "The current law, particularly as enforced by this administration, does not reflect the will of the American people."
One of Boehner's guests at Obama's State of the Union address last month was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C. The United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops has endorsed both bills.
Brown of Susan B. Anthony's List said that backing from Boehner and 80 of the 87 new House Republicans will improve their chances of getting legislation through.
NARAL's Crane looks at the diminishing numbers of abortion supporters in the House and the rising GOP numbers in the Senate and worries. While many experts believe a measure to restrict access to legalized abortion couldn't make its way from the Senate to Obama's desk, Crane isn't so sure.
She counts 40 senators who solidly support abortion rights, 46 who oppose abortion — and the rest of them sitting on the fence.
NARAL's strategy for dealing with the changing landscape: "Make sure the White House is the ultimate firewall," Crane said.
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