Abortion rights bill falls short in Senate, but Democrats hope to send message
Senate Democrats failed on Wednesday to advance a bill to affirm the federal right to abortion, but they still hoped the effort would draw a sharp political contrast with Republicans who largely support the Supreme Court’s expected ruling to undo the Roe vs. Wade decision.
Democrats knew their effort would fail. The vote was 49 to 51, with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) joining all Republicans in opposition. The procedural measure needed 60 votes to overcome the filibuster threshold.
But Democrats said they wanted to send a message to voters, particularly in states with Senate races this November that could determine party control of the chamber, such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin.
“When November comes, Americans everywhere need to make their voices heard by sending more pro-choice voices to the Senate and to the House so we can get this done,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Democrats said the proposed Women’s Health Protection Act would codify the 1973 Roe decision that abortion is protected by the Constitution.
The bill also would prohibit many of the state-level abortion restrictions that exist today, such as laws that mandate abortion clinics meet certain surgical facility standards, a requirement that shut down some clinics in states with the laws.
The vote came as both major parties prepare for the expected Supreme Court ruling, which, if it tracks largely to a leaked draft published by Politico last week, would allow states to set their own abortion policies.
Democrats are hoping to corral abortion rights supporters’ anger to the ballot box this fall. Republicans are trying to avoid appearing as though they’re spiking the football before a decision is final, but some are already preparing for the next fight: attempting to pass a national abortion ban.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday refused to rule out a vote on a national abortion ban if Republicans are in the majority in the future. He said the Senate is likely to continue to hold votes on abortion legislation, as it has done occasionally in the past and on Wednesday. But he pointed out that no abortion policy bill in recent memory has achieved 60 votes.
He added that “the widespread sentiment in my conference is this issue will be dealt with at the state level.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, presided over the vote, signaling the high-profile role she intends to play in the political debate over abortion.
Democrats have pledged to fight to keep abortion available nationwide, and called Wednesday’s doomed vote the first step in that process. They have not said what else they might try.
In February, the Senate held a vote on a nearly identical abortion bill, and it fell 46 to 48.
“This is the first time this is no longer just an abstract exercise. Now we know women’s rights are at stake,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said before the vote. “We’re going to keep fighting and we will be pursuing the best path forward.”
The party is facing the difficult reality that even though the Democratic Caucus narrowly controls the Senate, it doesn’t have 50 members who support abortion rights, due to Manchin’s opposition. Without a 60-vote majority or 50 members willing to overturn or carve out the filibuster for abortion rights, they have no legislative arrows in their quiver.
Still, there are small signs of movement within the party. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who has long opposed abortion rights, supported the procedural vote on the bill Wednesday, and said he would vote for final passage if given the chance.
Casey voted in 2018 in support of advancing a bill that would ban abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, and has cast other votes for antiabortion policies. His political career built on the legacy of his father, the antiabortion legislator named in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey case, in which the high court reaffirmed abortion rights through fetal viability, or about 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Casey attributed his reversal to the leaked Supreme Court decision and the Republicans who are pushing for a national six-week abortion ban.
“The real question of the moment is: Do you support a categorical ban on abortion?” Casey said in a statement. “During my time in public office, I have never voted for — nor do I support — such a ban.”
Republicans criticized the Democrats’ bill for lacking limits on when abortion should be allowed. McConnell called it a “failed show vote that will only prove their own extremism.”
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two lawmakers who typically buck their party to support abortion rights, opposed the bill as well. They argued it goes further than merely codifying Roe. They take particular opposition to the bill’s elimination of existing protections for healthcare workers who oppose abortion and don’t want to participate in the procedure. Democrats dispute their interpretation of the bill.
The two Republicans have introduced a slimmer measure that would establish a federal right to abortion before viability but allow states to continue to regulate the procedure. Democrats say that would provide a loophole for states that oppose abortion.
“We are not looking to compromise something as vital as this,” Schumer said.
While Democrats might be able to curry two additional votes on an abortion bill if they were to hold a vote on the Collins and Murkowski alternative, they risk losing the support of progressives. And they would still be far from the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
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