published Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Opponents hit Scott DesJarlais on abortion vote


by Chris Carroll
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
Photo by John Rawlston.

HOW THEY VOTED

The Volunteer State congressional delegation split down party lines on a bill that would ban abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy. Tennessee's seven House Republicans supported the bill, while the state's two House Democrats opposed it.

Republicans: David Roe, Jimmy Duncan, Chuck Fleischmann, Scott DesJarlais, Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn, Stephen Fincher

Democrats: Jim Cooper, Steve Cohen

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., this week voted to restrict abortions in his first crack at high-profile abortion legislation since news outlets revealed he encouraged his future wife's two abortions in the 1990s.

Current law generally bans abortion starting around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Tuesday's bill, the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would ban termination of pregnancies after 22 weeks. It passed the House 228-196 on a mostly party-line vote.

With pro-choice Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House, the measure has no chance of becoming law. But the issue has entered the ongoing fight for the 4th Congressional District, where DesJarlais has a pair of well-funded opponents amid two abortion scandals that exploded late last year.

DesJarlais offered no public statements on Tuesday's vote, and his spokesman declined to comment Wednesday. Meanwhile, Democrats and DesJarlais' two Republican challengers had plenty to say.

"It's intrusive government at its core," Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said. "DesJarlais' past indiscretions make it particularly hypocritical. It's ideology that he himself hasn't even lived by."

A Jasper physician touting a "pro-life" platform, DesJarlais was elected in 2010. During his race for re-election last year, it emerged that he pressured a patient with whom he had an affair to get an abortion. The congressman was re-elected. Afterward, the Chattanooga Times Free Press obtained his divorce trial transcript, which included DesJarlais confirming his support for his ex-wife's two abortions.

In the transcript, DesJarlais does not address whether his ex-wife's abortions were early-term or late-term. He said the first occurred because of the ex-wife's medical issues, and the second one happened because "things were not going well between us and it was a mutual decision."

Among those exploring Tuesday's vote was state Rep. Joe Carr, the Lascassas Republican challenging DesJarlais in next year's 4th District Republican primary.

"What happened to the congressman -- he was a younger man, an unwise man and what I think he did was absolutely abhorrent -- but it happened a long time ago," Carr said in an interview. "And I believe him when he says he's repented of it, to God and the voters.

"But this is why I'm in the race," he added. "Leadership in Washington on this issue demands more than being just another conservative vote. Are they willing to be a voice for the unborn?"

Carr said his history as an adoptive parent and donations to anti-abortion groups show his personal commitment to the cause.

Asked about Tuesday's vote, state Sen. Jim Tracy, the Shelbyville Republican and DesJarlais' other intraparty challenger, described himself as "100 percent pro-life" before declining comment. That was a departure from January, when Tracy told reporters that DesJarlais "betrayed and deceived" 4th District voters about his life.

"I promise that I will never embarrass you with my personal conduct or compromise on my conservative principles," Tracy said at the time.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life, also declined comment on DesJarlais' situation.

"We welcome the support of any lawmaker who shares our public policy goals," Johnson said.

Carr and Tracy said they would vote the same way DesJarlais did Tuesday.

The 4th District touches 14 counties, including Marion, Grundy, Rhea and Sequatchie and parts of Bradley.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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