A vote had been scheduled for Thursday to coincide with the annual March for Life, a gathering that brings hundreds of thousands of anti-abortion activists to Washington to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
But Republican leaders dropped those plans after failing to win over a bloc of lawmakers, led by Reps. Rene Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who had raised concerns.
The House will vote instead Thursday on a bill prohibiting federal funding for abortions -- a more innocuous anti-abortion measure that the Republican-controlled chamber has passed before.
A senior GOP aide said that concerns had been raised "by men and women Members that still need to be worked out." The aide, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the plans, said in an e-mail that Thursday's vote will help "advance the pro-life cause" and that GOP leaders "remain committed to continue working through the process [on the Pain Capable bill] to make sure it too is successful."
Other aides said that leaders were eager to avoid political fallout from a large number of female Republicans voting against an abortion bill in the early stages of the new GOP-controlled Congress.
The dispute erupted into the open in recent days and once again demonstrated the changing contours of the expanded House Republican caucus. The 246-member caucus is seeing rifts on issues where it once had more unity. That's because there are now more moderate Republicans from swing districts who could face tough reelections in 2016 when more Democratic and independent voters are expected to vote in the presidential election.
Already this month, a large bloc of moderate Republicans voted against a spending bill that would repeal President Obama's changes to immigration policy enacted by executive action. More than two dozen Republicans from metropolitan areas with large immigrant populations also voted against an amendment to the bill that would end temporary legal protections to the children of illegal immigrants.
The abortion bill pulled Wednesday night was strongly opposed by Democrats and women's rights groups. But a similar version of the bill easily passed the GOP-controlled House in 2013 and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had vowed to bring it up for a vote.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the bill’s lead sponsor, had predicted Wednesday that his proposal would easily pass because it "has overwhelming support among the American people."
But Ellmers and Walorski had withdrawn their support and voiced concerns during meetings at the annual Republican policy retreat in Hershey, Pa. Ellmers did so again Wednesday at a closed-door House GOP meeting in the basement of the Capitol, according to several people who attended.
Seeking to rebut growing criticism from conservatives, Ellmers said on Facebook Wednesday evening that she would vote for the bill: "I have and will continue to be a strong defender of the prolife community," she wrote.
But she had recently asked leaders to reconsider holding the vote, noting that Republicans had faced harsh criticism from Democrats in recent years for mounting a "war on women" by passing restrictive abortion legislation and other similar bills.
"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]," she said in an interview with National Journal.
The opposition set off a scramble Wednesday among top GOP leaders concerned about how several "no" votes could be perceived by their party and the general public.
With word of the opposition spreading, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) conferred nervously off the House floor after a midday vote. From there, Scalise headed to a meeting in his office suite with Ellmers, Walorski, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) -- a lead co-sponsor of the bill -- and several other women.
In a caucus dominated by men, a meeting with top leaders requested and attended almost exclusively by women is a rare sight.
One-by-one they exited the meeting and remained tight-lipped.
Walorski said the dispute "is no different" than conversations that occur before votes on other legislation. When pressed to explain her specific concerns, she rushed off: "I can't. I can't."
Others seen exiting included Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), Diane Black (R-Tenn.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and Ann Wagner (R-Mo.). Hartzler had already signaled her support for the bill to reporters. The other women declined to comment.
The impasse prompted Tony Perkins, who leads the conservative Family Research Council, to visit the Capitol Wednesday to meet with Scalise.
He cited "a lot of misconceptions" for causing last-minute disputes with the bill. "We’re talking about a measure that would limit abortions after five months," he said. "America is only one of four nations that allows abortions throughout the entire pregnancy."
Women's rights groups and Democrats have denounced the legislation as dangerous and unconstitutional. In a message to group members, the National Organization for Women cited federal statistics showing that just 35 percent of rape victims report the incident to police -- and said that the bill will do nothing to increase the rate of reporting.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, cheered the decision of GOP leaders.
"I never thought I would see the day that the Tea Party-led House of Representatives would wake up to the fact that their priorities — outright abortion bans — are way out of touch with the American people," she said in a statement. "The GOP drafted a bill so extreme and so out of touch with the voters that even their own membership could not support."
The 22 women in the House GOP caucus are well aware that many of their male colleagues have earned the ire of Democrats and women's rights groups for talking about rape and women's rights.
At the same closed-door retreat two years ago, Republican pollsters implored GOP lawmakers to stop discussing rape on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill. The warnings came after several candidates faced heat in 2012 -- including former congressman Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who said a woman could terminate a pregnancy resulting from a “legitimate rape," and Richard Mourdock, a GOP candidate for an Indiana Senate seat, who said that babies resulting from rape were a "gift from God."
Franks, who is an ardent antiabortion activist, has been known to take an aggressive stance on the issue in the past, often clashing with Democrats opposed to his proposals. But on Wednesday, he took a notably softer tone as he acknowledged the concerns of his colleagues.
"I’ve maintained an open heart, because I realize that all of the people involved have sincere perspectives and have knowledge and experiences and information that I don’t have," he said. "So my heart is open – my desire here is not a political victory, it is to try to somehow be part of catalyzing an awakening in America to where we finally see the humanity of these little victims and the inhumanity of what’s happening to them."
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.