Lawmakers and anti-abortion advocates who gathered Friday for the nation’s largest annual anti-abortion rally say they are pivoting to a defensive strategy in Congress, with a focus on confirming conservative judges as legislation stalls.
Thousands of advocates gathered to protest the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion. The event featured a surprise appearance by Vice President Mike Pence with second lady Karen Pence, and a video message from President Donald Trump.
The confirmations of conservative judges and William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general, are a key issue for the activists. Nominations can be advanced through a Senate majority vote rather than the 60 votes typically needed to limit debate on a bill.
“The action that we will see in the Senate is our top priority and that will be to confirm judges to the Supreme Court or any other federal court,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said.
“There’s nothing legislative that can be done except for defense,” she added, referencing House Democrats’ efforts to reverse policies such as a ban on federal funding for international non-governmental groups that provide abortions or abortion referrals.
Trump, a strong ally of anti-abortion groups, released a letter Friday emphasizing his opposition to any policies that House Democrats might pass that may undermine laws limiting abortion.
“I am concerned that this year, the Congress may consider legislation that could substantially change Federal policies and laws on abortion, and allow taxpayer dollars to be used for the destruction of human life,” Trump wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “I will veto any legislation that weakens current pro-life federal polices and laws, or that encourages the destruction of innocent human life at any stage.”
Anti-abortion advocates acknowledge that they are unlikely to win any legislative victories beyond blocking bills by abortion rights supporters.
“The Senate will be the brick wall keeping that from happening,” said Dannenfelser.
Lawmakers who oppose abortion also acknowledged that it will be difficult to pass legislation to advance abortion restrictions in a divided Congress, although they say they will try.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana told the crowd at the march that he is launching a Senate Pro-Life Caucus. Reps. Christopher H. Smith and Rep. Daniel Lipinski, who both addressed the rally, lead a similar House caucus. Both groups will push bills like a ban on abortion past 20 weeks of gestation by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham. The Senate previously voted on a bill on this issue, but did not secure the 60 necessary votes to limit debate.
The lack of legislative opportunities leaves lawmakers zeroing in on judicial nominees, said Daines.
“The laws can change, but you know what, these judges are lifetime appointments,” Daines said.
Action at the agencies
Regulatory action is another promising arena, advocates said. One group is even introducing itself to Education Department officials that may be able to influence abortion policies on college campuses.
Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins told CQ at the march that she met with lawmakers this week and intends to meet with the Department of Education on Friday in what she thinks could be a first for an anti-abortion group.
The group is concerned about a potential California law. State legislators plan to reintroduce a bill that would increase access to medication abortions on public college campuses, and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated he would sign it. The state legislature passed the bill last year but Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed it.
“The question is going to be that these are going to entities — state schools that receive taxpayer dollars — that are now going to be abortion vendors. That’s going to become a federal issue,” said Hawkins on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services announced on Friday the first recorded violation of federal law under the jurisdiction of its division to protect religious and ethical concerns.
Last year, HHS announced the creation of the division in the Office of Civil Rights a day before the march. The division is expected by advocates on both sides to impact abortion and contraception.
The division found that the state of California violated federal law when it implemented a law that required pregnancy centers to post notices about free or subsidized family planning services and abortion.
Federal laws known as the Weldon and Coats-Snowe amendments prevent state and local governments from discriminating against a provider because it does not provide abortions or abortion referrals.
The HHS action is somewhat moot because the Supreme Court already struck down California’s law last year, arguing that it violated free speech. But the HHS division said it would take enforcement action if California were to revive a version of its law.
“Our violation finding underscores not only that California must follow the Constitution, but that it also must respect federal conscience protection laws when it accepts federal funds,” said Roger Severino, OCR’s director.