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House vote to restrict abortion funding tricky for GOP

Party is trying to shed image as antiwomen

“Here we go again,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. “It’s another battle in the war on women.”

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Here we go again,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. “It’s another battle in the war on women.”

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to impose tighter restrictions on federal payments for abortions, thrusting the issue of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy into the polarizing politics of an election year.

The bill stands no chance of being passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. But that mattered little to members of both parties, who seemed to relish the chance to accuse their opponents of twisting the issue to their political advantage.

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The House vote was 227 to 188, mainly along party lines. Six Democrats voted yes, one Republican voted no, and another voted present.

“Here we go again,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. “It’s another battle in the war on women.”

Republicans, bristling at accusations that they are hostile to women’s rights, said Democrats were unfairly characterizing their motives. “I will say it again,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, irritation apparent in her voice, “we are not attacking women’s health care.”

Existing law like the Hyde Amendment, first enacted in 1977, restricts federal financing for abortion services. But because the Hyde Amendment must be renewed every year, Republicans said their proposal would only codify what has been the law of the land.

Though the bill had solid support from the House Republican leaders, their unanimity Tuesday obscured tensions within the party.

Republicans have long sought to restrict abortion rights as a move to satisfy their social conservative base, particularly during election years. Just last week, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, spoke at the March for Life, an annual Washington protest by opponents of legalized abortion.

But the issue has become more challenging for Republicans, both because of insensitive comments from Republican men, on and off the campaign trail, and an aggressive effort by Democrats to portray the party as antiwomen.

The timing of the vote was telling. Notably, the House leadership chose to bring the measure up on a day when all of Washington, and much of the news, was consumed with President Obama’s State of the Union address. Republican leaders decided to make the bill one of their first orders of business this year, disposing of it nearly 10 months before Election Day. An aide to Republican leadership said it will probably be the only time an abortion-related bill comes up this year.

Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York, noted how the current legislation had moved through the House almost exclusively with the votes of Republican men. In the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill was approved two weeks ago, the 21 Republicans are all men.

“This has been the problem for a long time: men in blue suits and red ties determining what women should do,” Slaughter said.

Some Republicans said that they would rather be talking about other problems, like the shortage of jobs and problems with the Affordable Care Act.

“I’ve always said that we ought to avoid taking on these hot-button social issues; they don’t do us any good,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania. Dent voted for the abortion bill Tuesday, but he noted how some of his colleagues were so ill-equipped to talk about women’s health issues that the party leadership has had to advise its members how to delicately approach the topic.

“There were some memos floating around saying how Republican candidates should speak to women,” Dent said. “Here’s my suggestion for a communications strategy for some of these guys. Four words: Shut the bleep up.”

Republicans gave the bill an unremarkable title — the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” intended to convey its uncontroversial and popular goal. But Democrats contend that the act is a deceptive assault on women’s rights that would further restrict coverage for abortion among federal employees, low-income women, and those who visit military hospitals overseas, among others.

Over and over, Democrats used the words “war on women” Tuesday to describe Republicans’ actions, a line of attack that was politically potent for them in the 2012 elections. It is a line they plan to repeat often in this year’s midterm elections, especially in states like North Carolina, where Democrats believe that Republicans have overreached by enacting tough new abortion restrictions.

But not all Democrats think their party is well served attacking Republicans with the economy foremost on voters’ minds.

“I’m a skeptic,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. “The people we represent need jobs, need better incomes, and want us focus on the economy.”

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