Senate rejects effort to advance anti-abortion bills

The votes come the week before the Supreme Court holds oral arguments in a case involving a Louisiana abortion law

Demonstrators are seen on First Street during the March for Life anti-abortion demonstration on January 24, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Demonstrators are seen on First Street during the March for Life anti-abortion demonstration on January 24, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 25, 2020 at 6:43pm

The Senate fell short on Tuesday in limiting debate on whether to take up two bills that are abortion policy priorities for Republicans and President Donald Trump.

The votes come the week before the Supreme Court holds oral arguments in a highly anticipated case involving a Louisiana abortion law, which is the first abortion case since the confirmation of conservative Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

[Senate Republicans promote anti-abortion message]

As state lawmakers have doubled down on passing restrictions earlier in pregnancy, national Republican lawmakers have turned their focus to abortion restrictions later in pregnancy.

The two Senate bills include one that would ban abortion at about 20 weeks gestation with some exceptions. The effort to limit debate on proceeding to the measure was defeated, 53-44, since 60 votes were required. Republicans who voted against the cloture motion were Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Democrats who voted for it were Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

The other bill, which Republicans say would guarantee protections for an infant born alive after an attempted abortion, fell short, 56-41, on a similar procedural vote. All the Republicans voted for it, as did Democrats Doug Jones of Alabama, Manchin and Casey. Three senators who are running for the Democratic presidential nomination were absent.

Trump promised advocates while campaigning in 2016 that he would sign the 20-week abortion ban into law and again alluded to both bills at this year’s State of the Union address and the March for Life rally. Republican lawmakers have portrayed the second bill as a way to find common ground with Democrats on abortion policy.

The vote comes at a busy time for abortion policy. Prior to the Presidents Day recess, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on protections for infants that survive an attempted abortion, while the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing on expanding abortion rights.

The House also passed a joint resolution that would extend the deadline for a gender equity constitutional amendment despite fierce opposition from anti-abortion groups who worry it would limit state abortion restrictions.

[Abortion policy activism heats up for Roe v. Wade anniversary]

Bans on abortion after 20 weeks

Most states have some limits on abortion access, but lawmakers have struggled to replicate most of these restrictions at a federal level.

The Guttmacher Institute, a left-leaning reproductive health research organization, found that 43 states have a restriction based on gestational age. Bans stricter than 20 weeks have not passed muster in the courts thus far.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke in favor of the 20-week ban on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, calling opposition to the legislation a “radical fringe position on elective abortion.”

“If my Democratic colleagues block the Senate from even proceeding to debate this legislation later today, the message they send will be chilling and clear: The radical demands of the far-left will drown out common sense and the views of most Americans,” he said before the vote. “The Kentuckians I speak with cannot comprehend why this would be some hotly debated proposition.”

The bill's sponsor Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is running for reelection, as is McConnell.

"I find it odd that we would encourage young parents to sing to their unborn child at 20 weeks,” said Graham. “We require anesthesia to save the child’s life. We’re also a country that allows the child to be dismembered. It makes no sense to me.”

A version of the 20-week ban previously passed, 237-189, in the House in October 2017, but is unlikely to see a vote with a Democratic majority. A Senate vote to limit debate fell short, 51-46, in January 2018.

Campaign messaging

Legislation to either limit or expand access to abortion has been a hard sell on the federal level, given the divided control of Congress.

But votes on this type of legislation can be used to force vulnerable candidates in tight races to go on the record on abortion. This vote in the GOP-controlled Senate is likely an attempt to target Jones. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Lean Republican.

“Every single Senate Republican knows that these bills cannot and will not pass, but they’re putting them on the floor anyway to pander to the far-right,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “They’re intended to provoke fear and misunderstanding about a very difficult issue so Republicans can score points with their far-right base.”

Republicans also previously pushed for a vote last year on the bill by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., that they say would expand protections for infants born alive after an abortion. He argued that while “active infanticide” is illegal, withholding care or “passive infanticide” is not.

“This is not about Roe. This is not about politics. It’s about a simple question: Will the Senate protect babies?” said Sasse on the Senate floor Monday evening. “Even if you are unwilling to vote to defend unborn babies, I hope that my colleagues would at least consider joining with us in voting to protect babies that have already been born.”

Most Democrats opposed this legislation, citing a bipartisan law they say already protects an infant in this situation.

“After weeks of complaining that the impeachment trial of President Trump was preventing them from doing the people’s business, this is what Senate Republicans have proposed? Fake, dishonest, extreme legislation that has nothing to do with improving the lives of ordinary Americans,” said Schumer. “If Republicans were serious about getting back to the people’s business, there’s no shortage of bipartisan legislation we could consider.”

In 2019, the bill was blocked in the Senate 53-44 on a procedural vote. Collins voted against it, while Manchin, Casey and Jones voted in favor of the motion. Murkowski, the other Senate Republican who typically votes in favor of abortion rights, did not vote.

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