The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The House abortion bill likely won’t make it into law. But it still matters.

The House bill that would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks, which passed Tuesday night 228 to 196, presents a clear challenge to federal law. But the White House has issued a veto threat, and the measure lacks the votes right now to pass the Senate.

Does it matter?

From a political standpoint, the answer is yes.

The proposal by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) aims to capitalize on the public outrage surrounding Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor who was convicted last month of first-degree murder in the case of three babies born alive in his clinic. The jury also convicted him of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar of Virginia, who died from a drug overdose while undergoing an abortion at his clinic.

For roughly a decade, congressional Republicans have emphasized their fiscal agenda rather than social issues, given the fact that voters are far more fixated on the economy than the conservative push to restrict gay marriage and abortion rights. But on Tuesday abortion will occupy a significant place in the public arena, even as the Senate aims to work toward a bipartisan agreement on immigration.

In a phone call with reporters Tuesday, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion political action committee Susan B. Anthony List, praised Franks's "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" as an effort to address the problems highlighted in Gosnell's clinic.

She called the vote "historic," noting that in the past decade Congress had restricted abortion votes to issues such as federal funding and parental consent, rather than the central issue of when life begins. Under Roe v. Wade abortion is allowed up until roughly 24 weeks.

"For the first time since Roe v. Wade, we will protect that child’s life after a certain point," Dannenfelser said.

This year 14 states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah -- have enacted 32 measures imposing new restrictions on abortions, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. While this uptick has more to do with Republican gains on the state level than a major shift in public opinion, it has buoyed abortion opponents.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats make a clear distinction between Gosnell and the vast majority of abortion providers across the country. When the Weekly Standard's John McCormack asked Pelosi  last week, "What is the moral difference between what Dr. Gosnell did to a baby born alive at 23 weeks and aborting her moments before her birth?” Pelosi fired back, ”Okay. You’re probably enjoying that question a lot. I can see you savoring it.”

“But let me just tell you this: What was done in Philadelphia was reprehensible, and everyone condemned," she continued. "For them to decide to disrespect a judgment a woman makes about her reproductive health is reprehensible. Next question.”

In its veto threat, the White House made it clear the president would not tolerate a significant scaling back of abortion access in the United States. Franks's bill, the Statement of Administration Policy stated, "would unacceptably restrict women's health and reproductive rights and is an assault on a woman's right to choose... This bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and shows contempt for women's health and rights, the role doctors play in their patients' health care decisions, and the Constitution."

Tuesday's vote, in other words, is a reminder of how polarized the two parties are on abortion, even as they may be moving closer together on immigration and a small number of other social questions. And that is particularly important, given the upcoming special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat of Secretary of State John Kerry, and the New Jersey special election slated for fall to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D).

"We’re confident that the 40 solidly pro-choice members of the Senate can keep this bill from reaching President Obama’s desk," said NARAL spokeswoman Samantha Gordon. "However, this year’s election cycle leaves two formerly pro-choice Senate seats up for grabs, which could tip the vote on any future anti-choice bills in the other direction."

Last-minute changes to the bill have complicated the Republicans' public relations campaign. The original measure pertained only to the District of Columbia, and was then broadened to apply nationwide. The House Judiciary Committee rejected an attempt last week to provide a broader exception than just for the health of the mother; during the debate Franks said "the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low."

Before offering the bill on the floor GOP leaders included two additional exemptions, providing an exception if a woman is raped and a woman reports it within 48 hours, or if a minor is the victim of incest.

Those alterations prompted Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.) to remove his name as a co-sponsor.

"As a medical doctor, I believe it is my duty to protect children at all stages of life," Broun said in a statement. "I am extremely disappointed that House Republican leadership chose to include language to subject some unborn children to needless pain and suffering. I will not support legislation that harms innocent children, and I will continue my efforts to protect all unborn children by making abortion illegal at all stages of pregnancy."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), one of the leading proponents of abortion rights in the House, said in an interview the Republicans' handling of the issue "shows to me the Republicans learned absolutely nothing from the election last year. The whole election was about women realizing that Republicans don’t care about their health care decision making, and don’t trust them to do that."

In a press conference with reporters Tuesday, Boehner said he did not believe the publicity surrounding the bill and Franks' comment about rape would damage Americans' view of the GOP.

"Listen, after this Kermit Gosnell trial and the -- some of the horrific acts that were going on, I'm -- vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill, and so do I," Boehner said.