RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Gov. Bob McDonnell didn't utter a syllable about abortion legislation in his 50-minute State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday. House Speaker Bill Howell and other GOP House leaders didn't raise it in a press conference the next morning outlining a sober, mainstream policy agenda of jobs, schools and roads.

But it's there, just as sure as Del. Bob Marshall is: more Republican-authored legislation that would restrict abortion and, for some, contraception coverage through employers' health insurance plans.

Marshall, R-Prince William, and Sen. Richard H. Black, R-Loudoun, are the joint patrons of three bills that would exempt employers from a mandate to include contraception coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." Two bills apply to private employers' health care coverage plans. One could exempt state government and local governments.

Marshall, a resolute Roman Catholic and the General Assembly's most intractable and enduring anti-abortion crusader, also sponsors a bill to outlaw abortions done to ensure a child's gender, an extremely rare practice in American culture.

It's not that Howell, the governor and other senior Republicans don't have long records of supporting abortion curbs themselves. They do. But timing is everything.

A fight over Republican anti-abortion legislation a year ago exploded into angry protests on Richmond's normally sedate Capitol Square and provoked nationwide ridicule by network television commentators and comedians. That's not something Virginia Republicans relish reprising with elections for governor and all 100 House seats this fall.

It's a tricky high-wire act for high-level Republicans most responsible for raising campaign money, channeling it to their candidates, and keeping the party in power. Another nasty legislative skirmish over the emotional issue could further erode the GOP's support among females, particularly young moderates and unmarried women who, according to exit polls, generally favored Democrats last fall.

The presumed GOP gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is already a lightning rod over abortion limits and other issues dear to conservatives. A tea party hero, he strong-armed the State Board of Health last year into reversing a decision to exempt existing Virginia abortion clinics from a new law that holds abortion clinics to the same design standards as new hospitals. And on Wednesday, he said on a syndicated conservative radio talk show that civil disobedience by conscientious objectors to the contraception mandate -- including going to jail -- could be effective in undermining the law.

And a House speaker has many ways to quietly sidetrack legislation.

In an Associated Press interview last week, Howell -- marking his 10th anniversary as Virginia's single most powerful lawmaker -- wryly noted that the committee system will do its will without betraying any plans he may have for Marshall's bills. He spoke warmly of Marshall, a self-confessed gadfly who is sometimes an ally to the speaker but just as often a thorn in his paw.

"I find myself in an unusual position trying to defend Bob Marshall but ... all he's trying to say is that some people have a sincere opposition to contraception -- artificial contraception, pills, things like that -- and they don't think it should be forced upon them by the federal government," Howell said.

The 69-year-old Stafford lawyer running for a 14th two-year term this fall noted several lawsuits that challenge the federal contraceptives coverage mandate. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the mandate is unconstitutional would settle the issue nationally, he said. And if the mandate is upheld, Marshall's legislation wouldn't trump federal law.

"Unfortunately, what Bob's done is he's put in a couple of bills that I think have some constitutional problems. We do have something called the supremacy clause and, like it or not, that's the law," he said.

If the bills don't get a fair hearing, Marshall warned on Friday, Howell and others will incur not only his wrath -- and his ability to slow the House to a crawl with his proven parliamentary maneuvering -- but that of conservatives who are the GOP's base.

"If Bill Howell decides to kill these conscience bills, he will rue the day," Marshall, 68 and in his 11th House term, told Deputy House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, after Friday's floor session. "If he intends to bury this, I intend to play hardball -- very hardball -- and I know how to do it."

"If they do that to the Catholic and Christian businessmen in this state who are being persecuted for their religion, don't count on receiving any money or votes from these same people in November," he said.

Out-of-power Democrats, relegated to just 32 House seats, struggle to contain their glee at the GOP's predicament.

"It's pretty clear that they have some members who are true believers and are going to put in this kind of controversial, anti-woman legislation," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax and no relation to the speaker.

"Their leadership would like to cover that all up," she said, her grin widening into an all-out smile. "But they just can't do it."


Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.