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The House GOP’s abortion rights conundrum

Here’s a blunt reality that isn’t being heard loud enough in the conservative-dominated House Republican Conference — the party’s majority makers think their leadership is screwing up on abortion.

Center-right lawmakers representing swing districts from New York to California are sounding the alarm that their party’s strategy on abortion rights has backfired. These vulnerable Republicans — who hold districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020 — told us the GOP needs to be more mindful about how it talks about abortion in the run-up to the 2024 election.

Former President Donald Trump, who is easily leading the race for the GOP’s White House nomination, brags about appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade. Yet Trump is also trying to be vague on his stance on abortion, including whether he’ll push for a national ban if he wins next year.

Remember: House Democrats averted an expected “red wave” in 2022 by relentlessly attacking Republicans on abortion. And after its success on Election Day this November, Biden and Democrats are already planning to replicate that playbook next year.

There’s plenty of evidence that Republicans are getting crushed on the issue. Since the Dobbs decision in June 2022, six states have considered related ballot initiatives, with abortion-rights advocates winning even in deep-red states Kentucky and Kansas.

Earlier this month, voters in Ohio approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion access in that state. At least a dozen other states could consider abortion-related ballot initiatives next year.

In response, moderate GOP lawmakers have started opposing spending bills that include restrictive language dealing with reproductive rights. This comes after they previously backed bills such as the annual defense authorization package that included similar policies.

“We have to be very careful,” Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) told us. “I don’t think some of these guys have cable. I mean, did they not watch the election results? The American people do not want a federal abortion policy. They want very carefully considered state abortion policy, so we need to leave this alone.”

For years, Republicans said abortion should be left up to the states. Which is exactly what the Supreme Court did when it struck down Roe.

Yet increasingly, top players in the House Republican Conference have embraced a more aggressive federal role on the issue, including banning most abortions after six weeks. One of the conference’s chief opponents of abortion rights — Speaker Mike Johnson — now sits atop the House GOP.

This isn’t going down well with some of the very members who need to win next year to keep the speaker’s gavel in Johnson’s hand.

“We have to be much more compassionate and caring for the very difficult choices women have to make,” Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said.

The rubber is going to meet the road when Congress returns from the Thanksgiving recess. The House is going to be forced to reconcile its spending priorities with the Senate. And the House GOP leadership is going to have to contend with competing pressures from moderates, hardline conservatives and the Democratic-run Senate on access to reproductive care.

“Listen, the [Agriculture spending] bill didn’t proceed because of an effort to prohibit the access to over-the-counter birth control,” Molinaro added. The Financial Services-General Government spending bill “has its own issues because of the effort to rescind the Washington, D.C., non-discrimination act.”

There have been efforts — so far, unsuccessful — to remove some language that’s problematic for the middle of the GOP conference. Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.), who represents a Long Island district won by Biden, said he’s been working with the leadership to ax language in the Agriculture spending bill that would restrict access to mifepristone, a commonly used abortion pill. But the talks have been “slow.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, are chomping at the bit to make the election about abortion rights. The DCCC has already teed up campaign attack ads accusing vulnerable GOP targets of holding “radical” positions on abortion.

“Republicans were routed electorally last week because they continue to peddle extreme things, like criminalizing abortion care or imposing a nationwide abortion ban,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said during a pre-Thanksgiving recess press conference.

Case in point: A recent WSJ/NORC poll found that support for abortion access is nearing record highs. Fifty-five percent of respondents said a pregnant woman should be allowed to get an abortion “for any reason.”

For his part, NRCC Chair Richard Hudson dismissed the idea of abortion being a losing issue for Republicans. Hudson said it’s too early to tell what issues will dominate at the ballot box next year.

“I feel really good about ‘24,” Hudson said. “We’ve got great candidates all over the country, I think we’ve got a tremendous opportunity to grow the majority. So we’ll see what the issue sets are next year.”

We followed up by asking Hudson if he had any direct response to Democratic optimism that their abortion messaging will play well, even in red states.

“Nah,” Hudson replied.

Some Trump news: Reps. Tracey Mann (R-Kan.) and Erin Houchin (R-Ind.) will endorse Trump today. This gives Trump more than 80 congressional endorsements.

Trump is far outpacing everyone in the 2024 field in such endorsements. The former president’s team has made winning endorsements from Capitol Hill a priority, believing it could help Trump’s legislative agenda if he takes the White House next year.

— Mica Soellner and Max Cohen

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