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Lacking votes, House GOP leaders backtrack on late-term abortion bill

The GOP reversal coincides with Thursday's annual March for Life protesting the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

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Anti-abortion activists stage a "die-in" in front of the White House in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Buoyed by conservative gains in the November 2014 election, the anti-abortion movement is busy mobilizing on behalf of bills in Congress and several state legislatures that would further curtail women's access to the procedure. Thursday marks the 42nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that established a nationwide right to abortion.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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With thousands of anti-abortion protesters in town, Republicans are ready to push legislation through the House designed to please them. But it's not the bill an embarrassed GOP was hoping for.

Republican leaders had planned House passage Thursday of legislation criminalizing most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, an act that would have defied a White House veto threat. But late Wednesday they abruptly postponed that confrontation indefinitely after concluding they were short of votes.

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Instead, the House will vote on legislation barring taxpayer funding of abortions — a prohibition that's already largely in place. Republicans say the bill will tighten the restrictions and make sure no funds flow to abortions under President Barack Obama's health care law.

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The GOP reversal coincides with Thursday's annual March for Life protesting the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion. It also came with GOP leaders eager to showcase the ability by the new Republican-led Congress to govern efficiently and avoid gridlock.

"I don't see it as a failure. I see it as a victory in the process for getting legislation right," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a sponsor of the postponed bill, said in an interview.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, expressed disappointment that "a handful" of lawmakers had forced a delay in the late-term abortion restrictions but added, "We applaud the leadership for remaining committed to advancing pro-life legislation."

Congressional Democrats who solidly oppose the legislation, along with abortion-rights advocates, all but mocked the GOP's problem. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Republicans suffered "a meltdown."

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said of the bill, "These attacks are so dangerous, extreme and unpopular that House Republicans can't even get their membership lined up behind them."

The delayed bill would allow exemptions to the late-term abortion ban for victims of rape or incest and in cases when a woman's life was in danger. But GOP leaders ran into problems because some GOP women and other lawmakers objected that the rape and incest exemptions only covered women who had already reported the crimes to authorities.

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The rebellious Republicans argued that that requirement put unfair pressure on women who have already suffered. A 2013 Justice Department report calculated that only 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police.

Political pressures cut both ways. Leaders had resisted the awkwardness of postponing a high-profile abortion vote scheduled for the day of the anti-abortion march. And they didn't want to push anti-abortion legislation through the House that was opposed by GOP women, especially as the party tries appealing to more female voters ahead of the 2016 elections.

Yet when the leaders considered eliminating the requirement that rapes and incest be previously reported, they encountered objections from anti-abortion groups, Republican aides said. They chose not to anger that powerful GOP constituency.

The bill had virtually no chance of becoming law, thanks to opposition from President Barack Obama and an uncertain fate in the Senate, where anti-abortion sentiment is less pronounced. Even so, Republicans consider the bill an important statement of their priorities and a show of support for a vital issue for conservatives.

Supporters named their measure the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. But Democrats touted arguments by doctors' groups like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which have cited research indicating that fetuses are unlikely to feel pain until the third trimester, which starts around the 28th week.

A report Tuesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, citing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated that about 10,000 abortions annually are performed 20 weeks or later into pregnancies. The budget office estimated that if the bill became law, three-fourths of those abortions would instead occur before the 20th week.

Thursday's debate came as anti-abortion bills have a good chance of advancing in some states. That includes a Kansas measure banning doctors from using forceps, tongs or other medical implements to dismember a living fetus in the womb to complete an abortion.