Senate vote on abortion legislation fails to advance measure

Bill stalls despite lobbying efforts and Trump support

A bill by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., would not outlaw abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but rather seeks to provide protections for an infant who survives the procedure. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL file photo)

UPDATED 6:20 pm | The Senate voted Monday evening on a bill that Republicans say would guarantee additional protections to an infant who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.

The bill fell short on a procedural vote, 53-44, despite lobbying efforts by anti-abortion groups and support from President Donald Trump. Sixty votes were required to proceed on the measure.

The vote came after Democrats have pursued legislation on the state level to increase access to abortion during the later stages of pregnancy. Recent action in New York and Virginia to ease restrictions on abortion after 24 weeks has sparked a national debate over viability and how late in a pregnancy states should permit the procedure to be performed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.3 percent of abortions are conducted after 20 weeks gestation, but conservative groups argue that number likely underestimates its frequency because states are not required to submit this data to the CDC.

State-level bans that target abortions in early gestational periods, some as little as six weeks, have been struck down by the courts that ruled that they conflict with the terms of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion.

Some Republicans hope that by focusing on infants born during late-stage abortion attempts, they can find common ground with some Democrats, although most in the party support abortion rights. 

The bill by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., would not outlaw abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but rather seeks to provide protections for an infant who survives the procedure.  

“There is nothing here that is controversial or should require any courage. A baby is a baby, and that should have nothing to do with your politics,” Sasse said in a radio interview hosted by the anti-abortion Family Research Council on Feb. 21.

Democrats have largely stayed silent on the bill, but Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Patty Murray has spoken out in opposition.

“As leading medical groups have repeatedly said, this politically-driven legislation should never become law — and Democrats are going to stand with women, doctors, nurses, and everyone who truly cares about women’s health and rights to make absolutely sure it doesn’t,” the Washington Democrat said in a statement.

Trump recently met with advocates, including abortion survivors, at the White House before conducting a conference call with anti-abortion supporters praising the Sasse bill.

Historically, few Democrats have joined Republicans in voting for anti-abortion legislation in the Senate. Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., are expected to vote in favor of the Sasse bill, but it’s unlikely that other Senate Democrats will shift their stance.

House Republicans are also pressuring Democratic leadership to bring up that chamber's version of the same bill. A number of lawmakers — including Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — have requested the bill to be considered by unanimous consent, but were denied each time.

“We will continue to ask the House for unanimous consent until the Democrats join us in recognizing that the right to life is the foundation of freedom itself,” McCarthy said in a Feb. 22 blog post.

Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, launched a campaign last week to pressure 28 moderate House Democrats to sign a discharge petition to force a vote on the bill. Scalise and Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., have spearheaded the petition process but will need 218 votes, meaning a number of Democrats would need to pivot on the issue.

“Many Democratic Congressmen campaigned on a moderate platform, against their radical party leadership. For them, refusing to sign a discharge petition would be breaking a major campaign promise and a total violation of their constituents’ trust,” said Tim Chapman, Heritage Action’s executive director. 

A previous version of the bill passed the House 241-183 in 2018, with six Democrats joining all present Republicans.

It’s unlikely that any type of abortion legislation could pass now with a divided Congress.

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