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House passes anti-abortion bill

Proponents and opponents of abortion rights argue in front of the Supreme Court during the March for Life Jan. 24, 2011, in Washington. Getty Images

The Republican-led House on Wednesday passed a controversial abortion bill that codifies restrictions against federal funding for abortion services and could discourage private insurers from providing coverage for abortion.

The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" passed by a vote of 251 to 175. The vote was a signal that House Republicans are committed to satisfying their social conservative base, even as Congress continues weighty debates over the federal budget.

Rep. Scott Garrett called the measure a "commonsense bill" that would "do away with the patchwork ban" currently in place to restrict federal funding of abortions.

The legislation would impose a permanent bar on any federal spending for abortion care -- including tax credits for private plans that cover abortion. Republicans have argued that the bill would simply codify the government's commitment to the Hyde amendment, which bans federal funding of abortions. (Lawmakers need to renew the amendment each year.)

Democrats, however, call the bill an effective tax hike on insurance companies that choose to cover abortion. Most employer-provided private health insurance plans provide coverage for abortions.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called it an "attack on private insurance companies and small businesses."

"If you truly believe in the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of the free market, vote no," she said.

Added Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), "If Republicans want to overturn Roe v Wade, they should draft a bill and give it a shot. Don't use the tax code as a bludgeon when you don't have the votes."

Republicans today argued that the public is on their side, citing polls showing that most Americans prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortion.

"At a time when our nation is going broke, when we're borrowing 42 cents on the dollar...maybe those programs that have the least consensus and are the most divisive among us ought to be the first to lose their subsidies," said Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) countered by arguing that if tax credits for abortion violate the Hyde rule, then tax credits and deductions for charitable organizations and churches would also violate the separation of church and state.

"You can't have it both ways," he said.

Democrats also said the bill infringes on the autonomy of the District of Columbia, since it would make permanent a provision to restrict abortion funding in the capital city which was recently passed as part of a short-term budget bill. That provision bars the District from from using its own local tax funds to provide abortion services.

Today's House vote is expected to remain largely symbolic, since it likely could not pass as a standalone measure in the Democratic-led Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would most likely not even put the bill up for consideration.

However, some House members have suggested conditioning a vote on raising the debt ceiling -- a critical economic issue -- on seeing a vote on the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" in the Senate, the Washington Post reports.

Republicans effectively won a standalone vote in the Senate over defunding Planned Parenthood as part of a deal to pass a budget bill earlier this year.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, chided House Speaker John Boehner for making this bill a priority "despite facing intense public backlash for bringing the government to the brink of shutdown over defunding Planned Parenthood."

"Members of Congress who support this egregious assault on women will hear from outraged Americans through phone calls, protests, petitions, and most importantly, at the ballot box in 2012," Keenan said.

The American Civil Liberties Union also spoke out against the bill after its passage, calling it "dangerous" and "deeply misguided."

Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said one of the bill's failings is its exclusion of insurance coverage for abortion where a woman's health is at risk.

"A pregnant woman who learns that she has cancer or another serious disease should be able to make the best decision to protect her health," she said. "Though we may not all feel the same way about abortion, we can agree that a woman should not be denied insurance coverage for care she needs, especially when her health is threatened."

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative group Family Research Council's lobbying arm FRC Action, praised the House today for passing the bill.

"We commend the bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives for finding common ground by permanently banning the flow of money between the federal government and the brutal procedure of abortion," he said. "Compelling American taxpayers to hand over their hard earned dollars to pay for abortions can't be justified, especially at a time when our country is facing an economic meltdown brought on by a failure to stop the out-of-control spending in Washington."

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