WASHINGTON — Abortion politics are threatening to derail congressional proposals that otherwise enjoy bipartisan support, as lawmakers battle over anti-abortion measures attached to much broader legislation.
Abortion foes have found it difficult to pass standalone bills to restrict abortion, so they are increasingly inserting language into popular, unrelated bills, political analysts say. A bipartisan agreement to fight human trafficking is now imperiled and a deal toprevent a dramatic drop in Medicare payments for doctors nearly fell apart over the divisive abortion issue.
While the issue stirs deeply held convictions for many lawmakers on both sides of the issue, it also carries an unmistakable political dynamic.
Republicans score political points with conservative primary voters and donors by tacking on anti-abortion provisions to legislation, while Democrats also benefit with their base by fighting the GOP’s efforts and flexing their pro-choice muscles, said Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.
“Both sides campaign on the abortion issue and raise money on it,” Wagner said.
It’s hard for either side to back away from the battle because their positions are so entrenched, and lawmakers know that there are interest groups on both sides of the issue scoring every vote they take on abortion, he said.
“If you irritate your base heading into the 2016 election, you’re in trouble,” Wagner said.
The result is often gridlock. Case in point: An anti-abortion provision has led Senate Democrats to block an otherwise bipartisan bill that would strengthen penalties for criminals who engage in human trafficking. The Senate has been at an impasse over the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act for more than two weeks because of a provision that would prevent money from a special victims’ fund from being used to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
Democrats accuse Republicans of sneaking in the language to appease conservative anti-abortion groups. Republicans say the language was in the bill all along and Democrats either didn’t read it or changed their stance after getting pressure from abortion rights groups.
Advocates for human trafficking victims are caught in the middle as they struggle to convince the Senate to pass a bill that was not thought to be controversial. The stalemate also is holding up a vote on the confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has vowed not to allow a vote on Lynch until Democrats stop blocking the trafficking bill.
Injecting the highly charged abortion issue into an otherwise unrelated policy debate may energize interest groups, but it runs the risk of angering Americans who see Congress as unable to pass even popular bills, says Deana Rohlinger, a sociology professor at Florida State University who has studied the politics of abortion.
“Any time you try to appease some segment of your constituency, you run the risk of alienating every other segment,” she said. “And any time members of Congress seem ineffective in getting things done, it does not help them overall.”
The abortion debate also has threateneda bipartisan “doc fix” agreement to set a new formula for paying doctors who treat Medicare patients. Those physicians are facing a 21% cut in their Medicare payments if Congress doesn’t act by the end of March.
A provision in the tentative deal ties $ 7 billion in funding for community health centers to a ban on using federal money to pay for abortions at the clinics, which treat low-income patients. Abortion-rights groups are objecting to that provision .
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said the ban is not new and that the “doc fix” needs to move forward. The House Pro-Choice Caucus agreed after Pelosi tweaked the deal to make it clear that the abortion language would not change current policy and would expire after two years. President Obama also expressed his support for a bipartisan compromise on Wednesday. But Senate Democratic leaders said they will wait to see what abortion language the House actually approves before they sign off.
Abortion foes changed their strategy after a Republican attempt to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy failed in the House in January. Some GOP female lawmakers objected to the legislation as too extreme and House leaders scrapped the bill. It would have created narrow exceptions for women who were raped, but only if they reported the rape to police.
“I think they (Republican leaders) had to figure out a different strategy,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “And that’s what we’re seeing.”
Democrats have opted to counter that strategy so far by being willing to block popular bills rather than alienate their base on abortion, she said.
“Each side is asking the other: how important is this bill to you? Is it important enough to get you to back off your position on abortion?” Lawless said. “Do you prefer a stalemate or a policy you don’t support? I think the answer for now is that they prefer stalemate.”
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