Newly united House GOP faces abortion policy divide

“If mifepristone stays in the bill it’s dead. If mifepristone comes out it’s dead,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.). “So, until we solve that problem, we can’t get to the next one.”

Johnson told Republicans he wants the agriculture bill on the floor by the week of Nov. 13 — giving the new speaker little time to broker a compromise between his most vulnerable moderate members and his fellow staunch social conservatives. How Johnson proceeds over the next three weeks will provide one of the first looks at how he plans to navigate the pitfalls that ensnared his predecessor Kevin McCarthy
, and whether he plans to make good on his promises to protect the at-risk Republicans who helped the GOP clinch its narrow majority.

Johnson’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans have punted multiple times since late July on what is historically one of the easiest appropriations bills to pass: funding for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration. In September, former Speaker McCarthy threw in the towel after he, Whip Tom Emmer, and other top GOP leaders failed to win over those opposed to the abortion pill rider.

Tom McClusky, a longtime opponent of abortion rights who serves as the director of government affairs for the group Catholic Vote, told POLITICO he and other conservative leaders have been meeting since the bill failed on the floor in September with Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.), several New York Republicans, and other centrist holdouts to persuade them to back the abortion pill restrictions. Among the groups’ arguments: the Supreme Court may strike down the FDA rule allowing mail delivery of abortion bills as early as next year.

“We’re also telling them: ‘Look, you ran on a pro-life platform,” McClusky said. “You can’t say you’re pro-life and allow abortion drugs to be used so widely.’”

McClusky insisted these meetings have been fruitful.

“I’d be very surprised if the new speaker were to suggest taking it out at this point,” he said of the abortion pill provision. “Our efforts are better put [on winning over holdouts] than on backing down.”

But POLITICO confirmed this week that there is enough opposition to the mifepristone provision among Biden-district Republicans to block passage of the bill — if, as expected, all Democrats also vote “no” over its anti-abortion provisions, funding cuts and other GOP riders.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) told POLITICO Thursday that nothing has changed since he voted against the bill last month.

“If there’s any provision in there that’s extreme, then I’ll vote against the bill — it’s that simple,” he said.

Asked about efforts by GOP leaders and anti-abortion groups to change holdouts’ minds he laughed and said: “Good luck with that.”

New York Reps. Marc Molinaro, Nick LaLota and Anthony D’Esposito all confirmed they remain opposed as well — with some arguing that the provision has no chance of passing the Senate and others arguing that abortion policy should be decided at the state level.

D’Esposito called the abortion pill language “a non-starter” and said he’ll work with House leaders “to ensure my constituents’ priorities are addressed in this bill.”

Chavez-DeRemer’s office also said she will vote against the agriculture funding bill if the abortion pill measure remains.

Republicans’ narrow House majority means that these five members alone could stop the bill’s passage. But even if Johnson agrees to strip the abortion pill restrictions out of the bill, he would almost certainly face blowback from the right.

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) told POLITICO Thursday he would only vote for the bill if the abortion provision is included, and is confident many of his fellow members of the Pro-Life Caucus would do the same.

“That’ll be one of his early tests,” he said of Johnson. “It is going to be important to many of us.”

Before his election as speaker Wednesday, Johnson said in a letter to his Republican colleagues that he wanted to create a working group to “address member concerns” with the agriculture funding bill. In addition to the fight over the abortion pill measure, former Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and a bloc of rural Republicans oppose the bill over steep cuts to key farm programs that GOP hard-liners demanded. Lucas, last month, said he thought the bill was “destructive” and indicated he would stand against his hard-right colleagues who he felt were controlling too much of the appropriations process.

“Sometimes you’ve got to stop the tail from wagging the dog,” Lucas said in an interview shortly after he helped defeat the agriculture funding bill on the floor in September.

Vulnerable GOP Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska, Andrew Garbarino of New York and Juan Ciscomani of Arizona all said they opposed the bill based on some of the drastic cuts to other key programs in the legislation, including for farmers and rural communities.

Even if Johnson manages to forge consensus on the abortion pill provision in the Agriculture and FDA spending bill, there are other appropriations pitfalls ahead. Over the summer and early fall, House Republicans tucked controversial measures into nearly every spending bill that would restrict abortion access, limit gender-affirming care for trans people, and slash funding for HIV prevention, contraception and global health programs.

McClusky said he and other abortion-rights opponents will be watching closely to see how Johnson defends these provisions, particularly “the granddaddy of them all: the Hyde amendment.” That longtime budget rider in the Labor-HHS spending bill bars federal funding for abortions.

Several centrist Republicans, granted anonymity to discuss private conversations, said they took away from recent discussions with Johnson that he will aim to protect vulnerable members as speaker — after those members took a long series of tough party-line votes under McCarthy that exposed them to Democratic attacks.

But powerful anti-abortion groups that supported Johnson’s bid for speaker made it clear Wednesday that they expect him to deliver for them on federal restrictions on the procedure.

“We are thrilled by the election of Speaker Johnson and look forward to working closely with him to advance national protections for unborn babies,” said SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser.

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