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Revolt of the moderates? How GOP's hardline abortion bill got shot down. (+video)

A group of more-moderate House Republicans, tired of Congress's tendency to hold show votes that amount to little, stood up to an antiabortion bill seen as too extreme.

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Then-Rep.-elect Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida does a television interview on Capitol Hill in Washington last November. Representative Curbelo voted against a GOP abortion bill Wednesday.

Susan Walsh/AP/File

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Revolt of the moderates? It’s not a trend yet, but twice in the new Congress, more-moderate Republicans have rebelled against the GOP leadership over polarizing issues – over abortion on Wednesday, and last week on immigration.

That’s a switch from the past, when the tea-party tail has wagged the dog. The change reflects a desire among some Republicans to do a better job of governing – to show voters results ahead of a presidential election and in the wake of historically unproductive Congresses.

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“There’s a growing sentiment in the conference that we want to move legislation that can make a difference for the American people, and not take an infinite number of symbolic votes that might be good for a campaign ad or get people riled up,” says Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a freshman Republican from Florida.

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One example was an antiabortion measure meant to ban most abortions after 20 weeks. It was planned for a floor vote on Thursday to coincide with the annual March for Life rally in Washington on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

But the bill was pulled on Wednesday night after a group of about two dozen women and other lawmakers objected to a provision that would require rape victims – an exception to the ban – to report the incident first to the police.

"The issue becomes, we're questioning the woman's word," Rep. Renee Ellmers (R) of North Carolina told the Associated Press. "We have to be compassionate to women when they're in a crisis situation," said the congresswoman, who considers herself antiabortion.

The Justice Department calculates that 65 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

The bill was unlikely to meet the 60-vote filibuster proof threshold in the Senate. The White House had also promised a veto. Republicans scrambled for a replacement bill and drew from the cupboard a measure to permanently deny federal funds for abortions – which in the past has been approved on an annual basis. It was beefed up to block tax credits for people and employers who buy abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The replacement bill passed on a near party-line vote, 242 to 179, with only one Republican voting against it and five Republicans not voting.

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“I really applaud the women who stood up to the conference,” says Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois.

In the House generally, she said, “there are a number of members, primarily women, certainly on the abortion issue, that feel like this focus on social issues is not only divisive in their conference, but divisive in the country – that it turns off Millennials, that it turns off women.”

She hopes the revolt will "empower" these Republican women to strategize together on other issues.

Perhaps that is wishful thinking from a n abortion-rights Democrat, but some House Republicans say it’s possible that more-moderate members of their caucus could become a potent political force during the next two years.

Just as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky successfully worked to defeat tea party candidates in last year’s GOP primaries, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio strove to build his buffer against his right flank by supporting candidates from Democratic-leaning and centrist states. 

The freshman class includes folks from Illinois, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Iowa. House Republicans now have their biggest majority since the Great Depression, giving the speaker a larger cushion against hardliners. 

Freshmen such as Congressman Curbelo are not shy expressing their views.

“I can tell you that many of my freshman colleagues … have not been shy about standing up, showing up at meetings, and expressing their concerns, reservations and opinions, and that’s a very good thing,” said Curbelo.

Last week Curbelo voted against an immigration amendment intended to end President Obama’s program to defer deportation for certain children of undocumented workers, known as “Dreamers.”

That amendment, attached to a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, was one of four amendments meant to oppose the president’s executive actions on immigration. Twenty-six Republicans – mostly moderates from states with high Hispanic populations – voted against it. 

The bill is unlikely to get through the Senate in its present form, and again, the White House has threatened a veto.

Curbelo would rather have the House move forward on immigration reform than pass symbolic measures that aren’t going to go anywhere. An antiabortion Republican, he, too, was glad that the antiabortion bill with its problematic reporting requirement was pulled.

“It’s encouraging because I don’t think the American people sent us here to make statements.”