WASHINGTON — With thousands of abortion protesters swarming the city in their annual March for Life, Republicans muscled broadened abortion restrictions through the House on Thursday after a GOP rebellion forced leaders into an awkward retreat on an earlier version.
By a near party-line 242-179 vote, the House voted to permanently forbid federal funds for most abortion coverage. The bill would also block tax credits for many people and employers who buy abortion coverage under President Obama’s health care overhaul.
A White House veto threat and an uncertain fate in the Senate mean the legislation has no realistic chance of becoming law. But on a day when crowds of antiabortion demonstrators stretched for blocks outside Capitol windows — and hours after the embarrassing GOP stumble on another abortion measure — Thursday’s vote let party leaders signal that the Congress they now command is at least trying to end abortion.
The GOP’s passage of one bill and the abrupt derailment of another forbidding most late-term abortions underscored the party’s perilous balancing act of backing abortion restrictions crucial to conservatives while not alienating women and younger voters wary of such restrictions.
Obama, out West to promote his State of the Union economic agenda, embraced the same 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion that the protesters were vilifying.
He said that ruling ‘‘reaffirms a fundamental American value: that government should not intrude in our most private and personal family matters.’’ He said the House-passed bill would ‘‘intrude on women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care and unnecessarily restrict the private insurance choices that consumers have today.’’
The approved bill would permanently block federal money for nearly all abortions — a prohibition in effect for decades but one which Congress must renew yearly. Rape and incest victims and women whose lives were in danger would be exempted.
Republican House speaker John Boehner of Ohio praised the marchers in a written statement that also seemed to acknowledge discord among Republicans.
‘‘This march is part of a longer one, and our destination is clear: to secure and protect the rights of every unborn child. When there is disagreement, we should pause and listen closely. When there is movement, we should rejoice, and the House’s vote to ban taxpayer funding of abortion is cause for doing so,’’ he said.
Even so, the Republicans’ sidetracking of the late-term abortion measure sparked grumbling from politically potent allies.
In a sharp statement that singled out Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, and others, National Right to Life chief Carol Tobias criticized GOP dissenters on the late-term bill and warned, ‘‘Some of these lawmakers may ultimately conclude that they were ill advised to sacrifice the trust of their pro-life constituents so egregiously.’’
Ellmers, who has had a strong antiabortion voting record, was among those who had objected to portions of the late-term abortion bill. Her spokeswoman, Blair Ellis, declined to comment.
Dozens of protesters visited her Capitol Hill office Thursday to protest her role in scuttling that measure.
On the House floor, a debate that has raged virtually every year for decades was emotional.
‘‘Abortion is not health care. It’s a brutal procedure that ends lives of unborn children,’’ said Representative Joseph Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican.
‘‘I urge my colleagues to stand with the hundreds of thousands of people out on the Mall right now by voting for this bill,’’ said House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Democrats said such talk showed that Republicans were willing to subjugate women’s rights to political pandering to the crowds outside.
‘‘Women’s rights should not be theater, it shouldn’t be drama,’’ said Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a Democrat.
The debate took a turn to the personal when Representative Jackie Speier, of California, a Democrat, referred to ‘‘hypocrites on the other side of the aisle who have counseled their own girlfriends to have abortions. It’s legal.’’
Representative Scott DesJarlais, also of Tennessee, a Republican and physician who opposes abortion rights, once urged a patient he was dating to seek an abortion. His aides did not return phone and e-mail requests for comment.
Outside, thousands of demonstrators trudged up Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court in protest of the justices’ legalization of abortion 42 years ago. Some wore religious garb while others carried signs with messages ranging from ‘‘I am a voice for the voiceless’’ to ‘‘Thank God my mom’s pro-life.’’
No. 4 House GOP leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state told the crowd that her 7-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, has intensified her commitment to the antiabortion fight.