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Partisan Rancor Flares Over Abortion Measure

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Partisan rancor in the House of Representatives appears to have reached a new high, or perhaps low. The latest instance came last night. Democrats accused the Republican majority of deliberately misrepresenting amendments offered at a committee voting session on an abortion bill. NPR's Julie Rovner has this report.

(Soundbite of gavel)

House Speaker Pro Tempore: House is not in order.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Even on Capitol Hill, it's rare that boiler plate language in a House committee report rises to the level of floor debate, but Democrats were infuriated with the way Republicans on the Judiciary Committee described their amendments to a bill making it a crime for an adult, other than a parent, to take a girl to another state for an abortion. New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler offered one of the disputed amendments. It would have allowed grandparents and adult siblings to accompany a minor to another state for an abortion. Instead, in the committee's document...

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): It was reported as Mr. Nadler offered an amendment to provide sexual predators an exemption from the provisions of the bill if they were adult siblings or grandparents.

ROVNER: This was actually the fourth time the House has voted on the bill since Republicans have controlled the chamber. But three previous committee reports described identical amendments in a more neutral way. Even Democrats who sided with Republicans on the abortion bill last week said the unprecedented language in the committee report hurts the integrity of the chamber. Dave Obey of Wisconsin is the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Representative DAVE OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): It is about whether or not we can trust each other to deal with each other with fairness and with accuracy. It is about whether or not the majority will use its power to unilaterally mischaracterize any effort by any member of the minority.

ROVNER: Republicans, however, were unapologetic. On a mostly party-line vote, they quashed a motion that would have ordered a change in the report. Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin insisted that the descriptions were fair because the effect of the Democrats' language would have been to exempt sexual predators.

Representative JAMES SENSENBRENNER (Republican, Wisconsin): We were accurate, and if you don't want this to happen again, draft your amendments properly.

ROVNER: Sensenbrenner also said he offered to change the descriptions in the report...

Rep. SENSENBRENNER: Provided that those who offered the amendments acknowledge that due to the way they were drafted, they opened the bill up to the harmful consequences of allowing sexual predators to exploit the loopholes such amendments would create in the bill.

ROVNER: The Democrats declined his offer, but political scientist Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says he's not that surprised by the fight.

Mr. THOMAS MANN (Brookings Institution): What we have seen in the last couple of years is that the Republican majority and the House plays partisan hardball even when they don't have to.

ROVNER: It's one thing to stretch the rules on a floor vote to pass a bill critical to Republican leaders, says Mann...

Mr. MANN: But they do it when there's no need to do it, and all it will do is further alienate the minority. I guess the principle is that if you're in the opposition party, you must be evil and, therefore, any acts taken against you are justified.

ROVNER: The abortion bill itself is now on its way to the Senate, which has its own partisan war under way. Mann says he doesn't expect the hard feelings in the House to go away any time soon. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.