The Senate rushed Wednesday into an almost-certain-to-fail vote toward enshrining Roe v. Wade abortion access as federal law, a blunt display of the nation’s partisan divide over the landmark court decision and the limits of legislative action.
The roll call promised to be the first of several efforts in Congress to preserve the nearly 50-year-old court ruling, which declares a constitutional right to abortion services but is at serious risk of being overturned by a conservative Supreme Court.
President Joe Biden called on the Congress controlled by Democrats to pass legislation to protect abortion services for millions of Americans. But his party’s slim majority appears unable to overcome a filibuster from Republicans, who have been working for decades to install conservative Supreme Court justices and end Roe v. Wade.
“The position of the Biden administration has been clear since day one. We will defend women’s constitutional rights recognized in Roe v. Wade,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said ahead of the vote.
Congress has battled for years over abortion policy but the Wednesday vote to take up a House-passed bill was given new urgency after the disclosure of a draft Supreme Court opinion by the conservative majority to overturn the Roe decision that many had believed to be settled law.
The outcome of the court’s actual ruling, expected this summer, is sure to reverberate around the country and on the campaign trail ahead of the fall midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress.
One by one, Democratic senators have stood on the Senate floor delivering speeches contending that undoing abortion access would mean great harm, not only for women but for all Americans planning families and futures.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said that most American women have only known a world where abortion access was guaranteed but could face a future with fewer rights than their mothers or grandmothers.
“That means women will not have the same control over their lives and bodies as men do, and that’s wrong,” she said in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote.
Few Republican senators have spoken out in favor of ending abortion access, even though almost all are certain to join a filibuster to block the bill from advancing. Sixty votes would be needed to move ahead in the 50-50 split chamber.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, an architect of the effort to install conservative justices on the Supreme Court — including three during the Trump era — has sought to downplay the outcome of any potential changes in federal abortion policy.
“This issue will be dealt with at the state level,” McConnell said.
Some other Republicans, including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, argue that the House-passed bill is more extreme than Roe, and would expand abortion access beyond other leading countries around the world.
About half the states already have approved laws that would further restrict or ban abortions, including some trigger laws that would take effect once the court rules.
Polls showing most Americans want to preserve access to abortion in the earlier stages of pregnancy, but views are more nuanced and mixed when it comes to later-term abortions.
The draft court ruling on a case from Mississippi suggested the majority of conservative justices are prepared to end the federal right to abortion, leaving it to the states to decide.
Whatever the Supreme Court says this summer will almost guarantee a new phase of political fighting in Congress over abortion policy, filibuster rules and the most basic rights to health care, privacy and protecting the unborn.
In recent years, abortion debates have come to a political draw in Congress. Bills would come up for votes — to expand or limit services — only to fail along party lines or be stripped out of broader legislative packages.
Security was tight at the Capitol where Vice President Kamala Harris was expected to preside, and has been bolstered across the street at the Supreme Court after protesters turned out in force last week following the leaked draft.
In the House, where Democrats have the majority, lawmakers approved the abortion-rights Women’s Health Protection Act last year on a largely party-line vote once the Supreme Court first signaled it was considering the issue by allowing a Texas law’s ban to take effect.
But the bill has languished in the Senate, evenly split with bare Democratic control because of Harris’ ability to cast a tie-braking vote.
It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and Wednesday’s outcome was expected to fall short, renewing calls to change the Senate rules to do away with the high-bar threshold, at least in this case.
One conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, told reporters he supports keeping Roe v. Wade, but would be voting no on this bill as too broad — joining Republicans to block its consideration.
The two Republican senators who support abortion access — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who faces her own reelection in November, and Susan Collins of Maine — are also no votes, having proposed their own more tailored approach to counter the Supreme Court’s potential action.
Both of the Republican senators, who voted to confirm most of former President Donald Trump’s justices, are in talks over alternatives. But Democrats have largely panned the Collins-Murkowski effort as insufficient’
“I plan to continue working with my colleagues on legislation to maintain – not expand or restrict – the current legal framework for abortion rights in this country,” Collins said in a statement.
Pressure is building on those two Republican women senators to join most Democrats in changing the filibuster rules, but that appears unlikely.
Five years ago, it was McConnell who changed Senate rules to do away with the filibuster to confirm Trump’s justices after he blocked Barack Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court vacancy at the start of the 2016 presidential campaign, leaving the seat open for Trump to fill after he won the White House.
Both parties face enormous pressure to convince voters they are doing all they can — the Democrats working to preserve abortion access, the Republicans to limit or end it — with the fall elections coming up.
The congressional campaign committees are fundraising off the abortion issue, and working furiously to energize voters who are already primed to engage.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Kevin Freking, Darlene Superville and Farnoush Amiri in Washington and David Sharp in Maine contributed to this report.