Dems’ base wants a simple Roe fight. It’s getting complexity instead.

By | July 15, 2022

Rep. Jim Himes says he’s tried the Democratic Party’s main talking points on abortion rights — elect more of us so we can push the Senate to act. As he tells it, they only frustrated voters more.

“The plan of attack right now is not terribly good, at least in my district,” Himes said of Democrats’ strategy for a post-Roe v. Wade world.

And he returned from Connecticut this week with a different strategy in mind. In a closed-door caucus meeting this week, Himes urged fellow Democrats to take up legislation to protect access to abortion in at least some cases, such as when a mother’s life is endangered — even if that bill doesn’t fully restore a nationwide right to terminate pregnancy.

“I think if you believe that there’s a path to codify Roe, by all means, let’s do it. But there’s not. So let’s do what we can to save lives,” Himes said in an interview.

Although House Democrats are eyeing votes on roughly a half-dozen popular bills on abortion and related social issues raised by the Supreme Court’s decision last month — starting with two on Friday — Himes’ ideas aren’t currently on the docket, according to a senior Democratic aide. That’s in line with many other Democrats in the House and Senate who are leery of doing anything less than fully restoring the constitutional right to an abortion.

It’s a gamble for a party that wants to channel voter anger over Roe as a way to motivate its base, even as it lacks any consensus on how to build that momentum. Himes’ impassioned push to his colleagues reflects yet another sign of Democratic fury that despite their control of Congress and the White House, they’re virtually powerless against the Supreme Court.

Still, several Democrats said they feared Himes’ approach could essentially lower the bar for future action.

“We’re not going to negotiate a woman’s right to choose,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday when asked if she would consider a slimmed-down bill.

For now, both chambers are taking slightly different approaches that party leaders say have the same goal: putting Republicans on the record. While the House is pursuing floor votes on abortion bills that won’t come up in the Senate, the upper chamber is instead planning weekly attempts to pass abortion-rights proposals by voice vote, a process known as unanimous consent requests.

That strategy allows the Senate to consider a bill without burning valuable floor time they need for nominations and potential legislation. It also acknowledges a critical difference between the two Democratic-controlled chambers: the House can pass legislation with a simple majority while the Senate has to contend with a GOP filibuster or may even lack votes from all 50 Senate Democrats.

The House will take its first post-Roe votes on Friday. One bill, from Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), would protect patients who travel for abortions, including those in her home state, where the procedure is now banned outright in most cases. Lawmakers will also vote for the second time in two years on a bill that codifies the right to an abortion, while expanding access in certain cases.

House Democrats plan to use both bills to hammer Republicans for their refusal to back abortion access — criticism they say is already taking on more significance with abortions now banned in dozens of states across the country. Several pointed to the widespread outcry over a 10-year-old rape victim forced to cross state lines to seek an abortion.

Some Democrats, though, say they’d still like to see their Senate counterparts do more.

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) pointed to a recent poll she conducted of her district that found 91 percent of people believed the court’s decision upending Roe was an “overreach.” And she said the Senate should take specific abortion votes, just like the House: “Shame on them … The American people are demanding this of us.”

Democratic senators endorsed the House’s approach in interviews but also defended their own focus on unanimous consent requests, arguing that confrontations on the chamber’s floor could show a contrast by forcing a GOP senator to block abortion-rights bills. The party’s senators are quick to note that they’ve already twice taken a failed vote this year on their marquee bill to codify Roe and expand abortion access, which faced opposition from every Senate Republican along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

“We already know where Senate Republicans stand on abortion rights: they’re opposed,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). “I don’t see how holding more roll-call votes in the Senate will tell Americans anything that they don’t already know.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) diplomatically offered that it’s “always helpful when the House can pass bills that matter” before bluntly observing: “The 50-50 Senate sucks.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who faces a tough reelection this fall, on Thursday took to the Senate floor to seek unanimous passage of her bill that seeks to protect an individual’s ability to cross state lines for reproductive care. But Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) proceeded to block what he described as an attempt to “inflame, to raise what-ifs.”

While more such attempts at unanimous passage are expected, it’s not clear yet what bills Democratic senators will try to bring up. One option could be legislation from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would ban data brokers from selling health and location information in order to protect women seeking an abortion. A task force of Democratic female senators, led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is continuing to meet on the matter.

But Warren reiterated to reporters Thursday that her goal for codifying Roe is to elect two more Democratic senators in November who are willing to scrap the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass most bills. That strategy, however, only works if Democrats defy historical odds and hold onto the House, which appears highly unlikely based on the current political landscape.

“My view on this is to say to everybody, ‘just give us two,’” she said.

Other bills the House is likely to take up as part of its abortion-rights plan include proposals designed to protect rights to contraception and gay marriage, both raised for future examination by Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion that accompanied the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe. Democrats also plan to hold a vote on a bill addressing data privacy concerns for women who use fertility or other phone apps that could be used to identify those seeking abortions.

None of those are expected to receive much, if any, GOP support, which means they will stand no chance of passing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.

Democrats like Himes say that does little to reassure their constituents, many of whom believe their party has a duty to find some kind of solution — even if that remedy falls short of their goal.

“The theory is, if we start trying to save three of the 20 people who are drowning, we are ignoring the other 17. I think that’s a fallacy,” the Nutmegger said. “This is one of those rare moments where you’ve got an opportunity to do the right thing, and potentially to do a wise thing politically.”