By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans were in disarray on Thursday after legislation clamping new limits on abortion was withdrawn from a House of Representatives debate because of a lack of support from more moderate members who rebelled against it.
The setback for anti-abortion forces, and ultra-conservative House Republicans, came on the 42nd anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the procedure.
A House Republican leadership aide, asked about the abrupt change in plans late on Wednesday after the legislation was canceled, said, "Some concerns were raised by men and women members that still need to be worked out."
The developments came as anti-abortion marchers were converging on the Capitol in an annual protest of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision making it legal for women to have abortions.
Just 17 days into the new Congress that is in full Republican control for the first time since 2006, the abortion fight highlighted fissures within the party that wants to use its new majority to undercut support for Democrats as the 2016 presidential race begins to heat up.
Republicans already were struggling with how to deal with controversial issues ranging from immigration to how to pay for expensive, but necessary, infrastructure repairs.
The abortion legislation is a particularly difficult matter for Republicans as the party's conservative base is clamoring to chip away at Roe v. Wade. At the same time, Republicans feel the need to broaden their appeal among female voters to help win the White House in 2016.
Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina and Representative Susan Brooks of Indiana have been traveling around the country to hold town halls with women to discuss the issues they care about.
"We have got to do a better job messaging with women in this country," Ellmers said earlier this month at an event sponsored by Main Street Partnership, a group of centrist Republicans.
House Republicans huddled in the basement of the Capitol early on Wednesday when they heard complaints from male and female lawmakers opposed to the bill. The legislation would have banned abortions 20 weeks after fertilization occurs, a time when a fetus begins to feel pain, Republicans said.
The debate was so touchy that House Republican aides were kicked out of the meeting and many lawmakers left the session refusing to comment on the intra-party tussle.
But Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, said "members, including myself, were very concerned" with provisions of the bill.
One would have allowed women to have an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy if they were victims of rape. But they had to have reported the rape to law enforcement. Dent called that "an unreasonable burden."
He also complained that an exemption for incest would only apply to minors. "Incest is incest, in my view.”
Needing to respond in some way to anti-abortion forces, House Republican leaders set up a debate on a weaker bill that bans federal funding of abortion, which is mostly in place already.
(Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Tom Brown)