House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has been sandbagged by ultra-conservative members of the House Republican conference so often, he probably gets jumpy whenever he hears someone approaching from his right. But a new blow to the speaker’s authority has come from another direction entirely.
Late Wednesday, House leadership cancelled a vote on a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. The objections came not from hardline conservatives – but from some of the party’s female members, who viewed its restrictions as excessive. Others worry the GOP cannot continue to take a hard line on social issues if it wants to broaden its national appeal.
Among the major points of disagreement were the bill’s few exceptions to the abortion restriction. A rape exception would only apply if the victim filed a formal report with the police. An incest exception would only apply to victims under 18 years of age.
On Thursday, House leadership saw enough support among the more moderate members of the conference bleed away that the bill – which would have attracted no Democratic votes – could not have achieved a simple majority in the House.
The decision to drop the bill was particularly embarrassing because the vote was scheduled for the same day as the annual March for Life in Washington staged by anti-abortion groups. The march marks the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision making abortions legal.
“What we saw this week was something that the Republican Party truly underestimated, and that’s how small their majority is,” said John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow in governance studies and the managing editor of Brookings’ FixGov blog. “By historical standards, particularly Republican historical standards, it is large. But in terms of governing, running an institution, passing legislation, it’s not. It doesn’t take too many defections to kill a bill, particularly with a united Democratic Party.”
In the past, Hudak noted, the Democratic caucus had its Blue Dogs, who would cross party lines on fiscal issues, and others who would do so on specific policy questions. More than once in recent years, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has helped Boehner get the votes he needs to push legislation through the House.
Now, though, it’s different. “You don’t have a Democratic Party that is particularly interested in helping the speaker out when he needs a few votes,” said Hudak.
While the Republicans have their largest majority in the House of Representatives since the Hoover administration, that increase in numbers – not enough to guarantee Boehner majorities whenever he needs them – adds to his management challenges.
“Any time a majority caucus gets bigger there is more diversity and even free agency,” said Donald R. Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“Boehner is doing what [Dennis] Hastert did as speaker, and Newt [Gingrich] before him, and that is meet with members who have problems with certain bills or amendments, individually and sometimes in small groups, to talk things out (not to punish),” said Wolfensberger, who served 28 years as a House staffer, rising to staff director of the Rules Committee. “The bigger the party, the more potential there is for problems arising that demand close and careful attention. Size is no guarantee of a safe margin for error or defections.”
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