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Anti-abortion demonstrators descended on Capitol Hill yesterday for the annual March for Life. And inside the Capitol, House lawmakers voted to tighten federal restrictions on abortion. But the bill they passed was far weaker than what some members were hoping for. The Republican leadership shelved a bill that would've banned most abortions after 20 weeks. As NPR's Juana Summers reports, GOP leaders bowed to the wishes of Republican women and moderates.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Tens of thousands of abortion opponents from around the country packed the National Mall on Thursday for the annual March for Life that coincides with the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCH FOR LIFE PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go.
SUMMERS: Just blocks away at the Capitol, Republicans were forced to scrap plans to vote on a bill that would ban most abortions 20 weeks after conception. Republican women and moderates drove the split over the legislation. They pushed for controversial language to be dropped from the 20-week abortion ban bill. It would have allowed an exception to the ban for rape victims, but only if they had reported to their attack to police. Some worried the bill could set the party back at exactly the moment it's looking to broaden its base ahead of 2016's elections. Congressman Charlie Dent is a moderate Republican who represents Pennsylvania.
REPRESENTATIVE CHARLIE DENT: When there are many Republican women in our conference who are pro-life saying that they're having difficulty with this bill, I think all members should listen to them.
SUMMERS: Discontent about the bill flared last week when North Carolina's Renee Ellmers voiced her concerns about the bill at the joint Republican retreat. Yet the bill continued to move toward a vote. Aides say that the House passed an identical 20-week abortion ban in 2013. But a lot can change in a year.
2014 gave Republicans a historic House majority. And with that majority came more diverse ideologies to grapple with. This was supposed to be a unifying moment for the party. But instead, House leaders changed course, holding a vote on a more limited bill that would permanently ban the use of federal money for nearly all abortions. Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York said Republicans seemed eager to pass any bill they could to chip away at women's rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REPRESENTATIVE LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Can't pass this one? Grab another. Can't pass that one? Just take the next one. They're insistence on attacking women's health seemingly knows no bounds.
SUMMERS: Just three Democrats voted in favor of the bill the House passed Thursday to forbid the use of taxpayer funding for abortions. Five years ago, 64 Democrats voted for what's known as the Stupak Amendment, which would prevent women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying abortion coverage. Supporters of the 20-week abortion ban said they are disappointed that the bill didn't get a vote. Arizona Republican Trent Franks is a leading sponsor of the bill.
REPRESENTATIVE TRENT FRANKS: The last time that this country debated or argued among ourselves an issue of this nature and magnitude, where the personhood of a certain group of people was denied in the courts, we shot ourselves to doll rags on the battlefields of the Civil War. At least today, we are talking amicably and trying to work it out.
SUMMERS: While Franks and other supporters say they are deeply committed to reviving it, others seem ready to move on so that the party can prove its ability to legislate on issues important to voters. Congressman Dent of Pennsylvania.
DENT: I would prefer that our party spend less time focusing on these very contentious social issues because that distracts us from broader economic messages where I think we have a much greater appeal to the larger public.
SUMMERS: House Republican leadership aides say they plan to take the 20-week abortion ban bill up again later this Congress. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Senate will vote on the ban this year, too, despite the president's threatened veto.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCH FOR LIFE PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, Obama, your mama chose life.
SUMMERS: Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.