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Republicans in the U.S. House passed sweeping new restrictions on late-term abortions Tuesday, a mostly symbolic initiative that served to re-ignite social and cultural tensions that divided the nation in the last presidential election.
Two Minnesota Republicans were among the bill's 184 co-sponsors: Reps. John Kline and Michele Bachmann. So was rural Democrat and abortion rights foe Collin Peterson. A third Minnesota Republican, Rep. Erik Paulsen, joined in a largely party-line vote of 228-196, but was not a co-sponsor.
Republicans portrayed the legislation — the most restrictive abortion bill of the past decade — as a response to the high-profile murder trial and conviction of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who delivered babies alive during abortions.
But even before Tuesday's vote, some Democratic lawmakers and women's groups where characterizing the legislation as a revival of what they call the GOP's "war on women," a line that drew oxygen from Arizona Republican Trent Franks' statement that rape rarely results in pregnancy.
The political furor over the comment by Franks, the bill's sponsor, prompted House Republican leaders to include a rape and incest exception that had been absent from the original legislation.
House Speaker John Boehner called Gosnell's actions "horrific," and dismissed the controversy over Franks' statement. "The vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of the bill," Boehner said, "and so do I."
Some Republicans have urged the party to steer clear of divisive social fights and focus instead on winning fiscal and economic debates that have broader appeal. Among them was Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who has called it "a stupid idea to bring this up. The economy is on everybody's minds … and now we're going to have a debate on rape and abortion." Republicans were widely viewed as having suffered in the 2012 elections from Missouri Republican Todd Akin's remark that "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
The bill, called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would ban abortion after the fetus is 20 weeks old, considered to be the 22nd week of pregnancy. While abortion foes argue it would end late-term abortions of potentially viable fetuses, abortion-rights backers say it would endanger women sometimes facing grave complications late in their pregnancies.
Democrats also called it an assault on the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision upholding abortion rights. Said Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum: "This bill is another Republican attack on women's reproductive rights."
Emily Bittner, national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said Tuesday's abortion vote would put Kline, a top Democratic target in Minnesota, on the wrong side of "moderates" in his newly drawn district, which was carried last year by Obama.
Kline, however, said the new restrictions are in line with the views of his constituents. "It's certainly my view," he said.
As for the timing, Kline said nobody should be surprised that the Gosnell case would lead to action in Congress. "Clearly, it's an important issue," he said. "We've all read the horrific stories. It isn't any surprise that people are on this."
When it was her time to speak, Bachmann, who made opposition to legal abortion a centerpiece of her early political career, held up a picture of a developing fetus on the House floor. "We're here because we care about women … because we care about the unborn," said Bachmann, who is retiring from Congress after this term.
In a year when Congress has been fixated on fiscal and budget issues, the rape debate signaled the enduring grip of the cultural wedge issues that underlie much of the partisanship in Congress. Activists on both sides made clear that Congress' action could have electoral consequences next year.
"Dr. Kermit Gosnell murdered babies by delivering them alive during abortions and then snipping their necks," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports politicians who oppose abortion rights. "Congress must be clear that this will not be tolerated, inside or outside the womb, and the American people agree."
Abortion rights groups laid down their own marker. "Politicians should not be in the business of substituting their decisions for a woman's own decision-making about her health and her life or for the judgment of her physician," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
Democrats also accused Republicans of diverting energy to legislation that has no chance of becoming law, given the objections of Senate Democrats and President Obama.
"It's another day without a jobs bill," Pelosi said. "It's another day without a budget agreement. … Once again, the Republicans refuse to listen."
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