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political notebook

House fast-tracks bill outlawing some abortions

WASHINGTON — Legislation that would outlaw nearly all abortions after the 22d week of pregnancy was put on a fast track to the House floor on Wednesday after being approved in committee on a party-line vote.

The 20-to-12 vote by the House Judiciary Committee on the Republican-sponsored Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is the latest instance in which abortion opponents have pursued a new legislative strategy that aims to focus public attention on the disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain.

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“Delivered or not, babies are babies, and it has been shown that they can feel pain at least by 20 weeks,” said Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the committee.

A vote by the full House could come as early as next week, although the bill is likely to go no further because of opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Republicans found themselves once again wading into politically perilous territory on a subject, reproductive rights, that badly tripped them up in the 2012 elections after some GOP candidates made indelicate and erroneous comments about rape and contraception.

Indeed, a brief aside before Wednesday’s vote from the bill’s Republican sponsor, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, showed how the issue continues to present problems.

Responding to criticism from Democrats that the bill contained no exception for rape victims, Franks said that instances of pregnancies from rape were actually “very low.”

That prompted an outcry from Democrats on the committee and liberal commentators online.

After a short recess, Franks returned to address the matter, saying that his words had been distorted. He had actually said, he explained, that pregnancies from rape “that result in abortion beginning after the sixth month are very rare.”

Democrats swiftly corrected him. “The exact quote was,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.”

Senate panel sides with Pentagon on sex assaults

WASHINGTON — Siding with the Pentagon’s top brass, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation on Wednesday to keep commanders involved in deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases, rejecting a plan to stem sex-related crimes in the armed forces by overhauling the military justice system.

By a vote of 17 to 9, the committee passed a bill crafted by the chairman, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, designed to increase pressure on senior commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases by requiring a top-level review if they fail to do so. Levin’s proposal also makes it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and also would relieve commanders who fail to create a climate receptive for victims.

The committee rejected a proposal in a bill by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, to remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes go to trial. That judgment would have rested instead with seasoned trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above. The committee also rejected a provision of Gillibrand’s bill that would have taken away a commander’s authority to convene a court-martial by giving that responsibility to new and separate offices outside the victim’s chain of command.

Echoing concerns voiced by the Joint Chiefs, members who backed Levin said they feared taking commanders out of the legal process would create more problems by undercutting the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline in their units.

Levin’s bill will be included in a 2014 defense policy bill. It retains a provision from Gillibrand’s proposal that would largely strip commanders of the power to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases.

Gillibrand called Levin’s plan insufficient. While she agreed with parts of his plan, she said it fails to force the changes needed to assure victims that if they report a crime their allegations won’t be discounted and their careers won’t be jeopardized.

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