Antiabortion activists are connected with a red piece of cloth as they stage a ‘die-in’ in front of the White House on Wednesday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Opinion writer

As President Obama prepared on Tuesday to lay out his economic agenda in his State of the Union address, House Republicans were moving ahead with an agenda of their own.

Just two weeks into the new Congress, they voted Tuesday afternoon to bring to the House floor their current priority: a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. The legislation, which doesn’t even grant exceptions to victims of rape unless they report it to police, was scheduled to be taken up Thursday — on the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade and coinciding with the annual March for Life.

It was a classic bait-and-switch.

Abortion got barely a mention in last year’s campaign, which led to unified Republican control of Congress. Voters in exit polls said their top priorities were the economy (45 percent), health care (25 percent), immigration (14 percent) and foreign policy (13 percent) — not surprising, given that these are the issues Republicans talked about. A Gallup poll after the election found that fewer than 0.5 percent of Americans think abortion should be the top issue, placing it behind at least 33 other issues.

But instead of doing what voters wanted, House Republicans set out to make one of their first orders of business a revival of the culture wars. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the new Senate majority leader, promised to take up the bill, too.

The decision wound up blowing up in the faces of House GOP leaders. Late Wednesday, they canceled plans to take up the bill Thursday after a group of House Republican women rebelled against the bill’s unkind treatment of rape victims. But the leaders clearly hadn’t learned the larger lesson: They merely substituted a different antiabortion bill (banning federal funding of abortion) that would be easier to pass.

The fiasco began Tuesday afternoon, when Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, explained to the House Rules Committee on Tuesday that the abortion matter was of such urgency that they needed to suspend “regular order” — the process by which bills are first taken up by committee. He argued that polls “show astounding support for this bill.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) countered that polls were a poor justification for the abortion ban, which he called a “messaging bill” timed to coincide with the Roe anniversary.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) escalated the spat. “This is not driven at all by messaging or by an anniversary but our strong sense of morality,” she said, asserting that “killing those unborn babies shows utter contempt for life.”

“I don’t really appreciate having my morality questioned here,” retorted Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the Rules Committee’s ranking Democrat. She said the Republicans should put the title “gynecicians” on their résumé — “politician[s] who believe they know more about women’s health than doctors do.”

It was implausible for Republicans to deny that they were doing the bidding of the antiabortion lobby. Douglas Johnson, legislative director at National Right to Life, told reporters in a conference call Wednesday that “this is a bill that is based on a National Right to Life model.”

The action by the new Congress was a gift to the thousands of pro-life activists in town for Thursday’s annual march, which has become something of a trade show for the antiabortion industry. In the exhibit hall at March for Life headquarters at the Renaissance Hotel, there were “Honk 4 Life” bumper stickers, “Hair Bows 4 Life,” pro-life bank checks and jewelry, “Touch of Life fetal models,” aprons showing ovaries and a fetus, panda T-shirts saying “Save the Baby Humans,” “Pat the Gnat loves life” merchandise, T-shirts proclaiming “Let God Plan Parenthood” and books articulating “The Case Against Condoms.”

Six blocks down New York Avenue, antiabortion protesters staged a lie-in outside the White House on Wednesday. An organizer with a bullhorn explained that “we have some red fabric we’re going to be draping over you to represent the bloodshed. . . . Make sure you’re lying in the fetal position.” Once 40 had assumed the position, the woman with the bullhorn announced that “the womb is the most dangerous place for a child.”

That Republicans are catering to this annual convention raises some questions about the genuineness of their agenda. So far the House has passed just 10 pieces of legislation. Was a 20-week abortion ban really so important to them, even though such abortions account for just 1.4 percent of the total? Was it so urgent, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a 13 percent drop in the abortion rate between 2002 and 2011? And were restrictions on abortion for rape victims really worth fomenting a rebellion by Republican women in Congress?

In his State of the Union address, Obama got applause from both sides when he said, “We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows.”

But Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), giving the Republican response, vowed that “we’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society.”

And, apparently, a higher priority than the issues on which Republicans campaigned.

Twitter: @Milbank

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