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Joe Biden’s opposition to federal funds for abortion brings first big fight of his campaign

Joe Biden’s opposition to federal funds for abortion brings first big fight of his campaign
Joe Biden’s campaign said he misheard when he told a voter recently that he agreed the antiabortion Hyde Amendment must be repealed. (C.J. Gunther / EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Former Vice President Joe Biden broke with his party Wednesday and restated his opposition to using federal money to pay for most abortions, drawing fire from rivals in the 2020 presidential race and sparking the first big intraparty fight of his campaign.

Amid confusion about Biden’s stance on the issue, his campaign issued a statement confirming that he still backs the so-called Hyde Amendment, a longstanding measure that prohibits the use of Medicaid or other federal funds for abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest and life-threatening conditions.

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The campaign statement came one month after Biden suggested in a conversation with a South Carolina voter that he had dropped his past support for the policy.

“Biden misheard the woman on the rope line,” the campaign statement explained. “He has not at this point changed his position on the Hyde Amendment.” The statement added that he would be “open to repeal” if women lost access to abortion in the future — presumably because of a Supreme Court decision or other change in law.

The statement brought a swift backlash that underscored some of Biden’s vulnerabilities as a candidate, even as he rides atop early polls of the big Democratic field: Biden has long been prone to gaffes when he speaks off the cuff. And his 40-year record in the Senate includes many votes and positions, on abortion and other issues, that are at odds with liberal orthodoxy today. This episode could fuel critics who say Biden is a man of another era who is out of step with the party’s more progressive base.

“He has to be careful to avoid looking out of it,” said Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution scholar and member of the Democratic National Committee. “This might be a tempest in a teapot, or it might cause lasting damage.”

Just one day earlier, Biden had pleased the Democratic Party’s left wing by releasing a climate change proposal that was far more aggressive than many had expected. Activists were pleasantly surprised that the plan released Tuesday embraced key elements of the Green New Deal, the progressive battle plan for combating climate change.

Now, Biden has provoked a powerful element of the Democratic coalition — women’s groups and abortion rights advocates — at a particularly perilous time. They are already on red alert because conservative state legislatures have passed far-reaching antiabortion laws, and many believe that Roe vs. Wade, the landmark abortion rights ruling, is in jeopardy.

“At a time where the fundamental freedoms enshrined in Roe are under attack, the 2020 Democratic field has coalesced around the Party’s core values -- support for abortion rights,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights group NARAL. “Differentiating himself from the field this way will not earn Joe Biden any political points and will bring harm to women who are already most vulnerable.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a leading liberal on Capitol Hill, called Biden’s statement “very disappointing.”

“I like our candidates to be foursquare in support of a woman's right to choose as a constitutional right, including the limitations of the Hyde Amendment,” she said.

Several House Democrats said they were shocked to hear their party's presidential front-runner supported the Hyde policy.

“I do not believe Vice President Biden really believes it is right and OK to discriminate against low-income women and women of color in terms of their reproductive choices,” said Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, who has endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential bid.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said the issue could be a deal breaker in terms of her ability to support Biden.

“I’m kind of astonished,” she said.

Biden’s 2020 rivals, although not mentioning his name, turned on him in a way that had not previously been seen in a primary contest that has featured little negative campaigning.

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“Repealing the Hyde amendment is critical so that low-income women in particular can have access to reproductive care they need and deserve,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the 2020 candidate who has put the most emphasis on women’s rights. “Reproductive rights are human rights, period. They should be nonnegotiable for all Democrats.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a top-tier 2020 competitor, said on Twitter: “There is #NoMiddleGround on women’s rights. Abortion is a constitutional right. Under my Medicare for All plan, we will repeal the Hyde Amendment.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts declined to say whether opposition to the Hyde Amendment should be a litmus test for a Democratic nominee, but said she would fight to repeal it.

“This isn’t about the politics; this is about what’s right,” she said. “The Hyde Amendment should not be the law.”

Throughout his career, Biden has said his Catholic faith drives his personal opposition to abortion but that he doesn’t believe it is right to impose those beliefs on the rest of the country. So while he supported a woman’s right to choose abortion, he backed the Hyde Amendment and a federal ban on certain late-term abortions.

His voting record in the Senate, which he left in 2008, mirrored where much of the Democratic Party was more than 10 years ago. The Hyde Amendment — first crafted in 1976 and named for Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a conservative Republican from Illinois — has been attached to every federal healthcare spending bill since then. For years, it was considered a compromise that even liberal Democrats accepted.

But since Biden left the Senate, Democrats have increasingly voiced opposition to the policy, arguing that the Hyde Amendment disproportionately hurts access for low-income women and women of color to a legal procedure. Three years ago, the party inserted into its platform a call to eliminate the policy.

Biden’s past support for the law was thrown into question recently when, at a campaign event in South Carolina, a voter asked him whether he would commit to abolishing the Hyde Amendment.

“Yes,” Biden responded. “It can’t stay.”

The exchange was captured on video, but the campaign declined to elaborate at the time. Even though the questioner clearly stated twice that she was asking about the Hyde Amendment, Wednesday’s campaign statement said Biden thought she was asking about a different abortion-related policy, the so-called “Mexico City rule,” which prevents federal aid funds from going to foreign organizations that perform abortions.

With his opposition to abortion funding reasserted now, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Biden supporter, said she didn’t think that issue alone would affect voters’ view of Biden.

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“I don’t judge a person on one issue or two issues or three issues,” she said. “It’s their overall commitment, philosophy, ability, background, education. It’s all of it.”

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