Conservative antichoicers really, really just cannot help themselves. Many seem haunted by the idea that women are going to claim they were raped in order to get around the prospective abortion bans they dream of enacting. Others oppose any rape exception but realize that’s not terribly popular, and are forever seeking to narrow such exceptions as much as possible. And so they wind up with situations like House Republicans faced yesterday, when objections to rape exception language in the federal version of the fetal pain bills, mostly among Republican women, derailed the legislation on the eve of what had been a floor vote planned to warm the hearts of antichoice activists in Washington for the annual March For Life. So at an “emergency” meeting of the Rules Committee yesterday, House leaders abruptly decided to substitute another bill restricting federal funding for abortion services amidst much very familiar talk that House Republicans don’t have their act together.

National Journal‘s Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox identified the big problem that popped up at last weekend’s House GOP retreat, and again at every gathering since then:

As of Wednesday afternoon, Republican leaders were insistent they would move ahead with legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks, but the Rules Committee announced an emergency meeting Wednesday night and sources said the bill would be pulled in favor of the less controversial alternative.

Some Republicans worried that the 20-week abortion measure might alienate millennials and female voters. But many female lawmakers were also furious over its clause stating that women can be exempt from the ban in cases of rape only if they reported the rape to authorities….

Nearly every woman in the conference was opposed to the way the abortion bill was brought forth.

[House Majority Leader Kevin] McCarthy told his conference at a closed-door meeting Wednesday that the bill was controversial but that the plan was to move it anyway. That drew excoriation from rank-and-file women, who were concerned that the bill’s rape clause would have a chilling effect on women reporting rapes and livid that they were not consulted before the objectionable clause concerning the rape exception was added into the base text of the bill.

Tellingly, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a lead cosponsor of the bill, gave an impassioned speech in conference, noting that because of the rape clause, the GOP was again fumbling over this sensitive subject instead of talking about other issues, according to sources in the meeting.

Remember when you hear that this fiasco was produced by a “revolt of moderate Republicans” that Marsha Blackburn–not a “moderate” by any measurement–was in the middle of it.

Maybe she can have a discussion of the mess with Iowa’s Steve King, whose Iowa Freedom Summit she is attending this weekend along with half the 2016 presidential field. King offered a way out of the “reported rape” problem yesterday: “I would not make exceptions for rape and incest, and then the reporting requirement would not be necessary.”

As WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe noted in his account of the brouhaha, at this time two years ago Republicans were very aware of the stupidity involved in disrespecting rape victims:

At the same closed-door retreat two years ago, Republican pollsters implored GOP lawmakers to stop discussing rape on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill. The warnings came after several candidates faced heat in 2012 — including former congressman Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who said a woman could terminate a pregnancy resulting from a “legitimate rape,” and Richard Mourdock, a GOP candidate for an Indiana Senate seat, who said that babies resulting from rape were a “gift from God.”

No, they cannot help themselves, even with respect to a symbolic bill that is sure to die either in the Senate or on Barack Obama’s desk.

The overall impression being created by the enhanced GOP majority in the House was well-summarized by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who has a much better claim on the “moderate” label than Marsha Blackburn:

“Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors. … I just can’t wait for week four.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.