WASHINGTON — The Senate plans to vote Monday on whether to start debate on a bill to make abortion legal nationwide, the centerpiece of Democrats’ response to Republican-led efforts to ask the Supreme Court to send the issue back to states to decide.
The bill is certain to be blocked by a Republican filibuster. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the few Republicans backing abortion rights, reiterated her opposition to the measure on Monday while putting forward a separate bill that would codify the right to abortion. But that is unlikely to win enough Republicans to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
The fact that the vote is being held anyway underscores the subtly shifting politics in the Democratic Party on the issue, as abortion rights advocates demand more vocal support from lawmakers and show little tolerance for outliers. One of the Senate’s two remaining Democratic opponents of abortion, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, said he would support Monday’s vote to open debate on the Women’s Health Protection Act.
The Senate bill comes as the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this summer on a Mississippi law that would prohibit abortion at 15 weeks. That would violate the court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that established a legal right to abortion up to about 24 weeks.
The court’s 6-3 conservative majority is widely expected to uphold the Mississippi law and some abortion rights supporters worry the court may overturn Roe entirely, which could play a central role in the 2022 midterm elections to determine which party controls Congress next year.
The stakes are also high for Collins, who voted for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 in a move that led to a heavily nationalized Democratic campaign against her two years later. She predicted at the time of his confirmation that a more conservative court would not overturn Roe v. Wade, saying Kavanaugh viewed the landmark decision as “settled law.”
“This is a very important time for us to stand up and show women we are for them and their ability to make their own health care choices, including abortion,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of the bill’s proponents.
While Democrats frame their legislation as “codifying Roe,” it would go further prohibit states from enacting restrictions on abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, or about 24 weeks, and in post-viability cases when the patient’s life or health is at risk.
It would also curtail GOP efforts to enact roadblocks to abortion access in the states by prohibiting policies such as waiting periods, ultrasound requirements or demands that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Any state regulations on abortion providers would have to apply equally to providers of similar health care services.
Conservatives, meanwhile, welcome the chance to put Democrats on the record on a bill that they say will be politically unpalatable with independent or conservative-leaning voters.
“Quite frankly, I’m happy that [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer called for a vote,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. “We want these senators on record so that we can go back to their states and say, ‘Do you know what he just voted for?’ … And you can be sure we are going to use it as much as we can in the elections this fall.”
The office of Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., the only other Senate Democrat who opposes abortion rights, opposed the bill, as did Collins and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republicans who often join Democrats on abortion rights legislation.
They both introduced a bill on Monday that would prohibit states from imposing an “undue burden” to the right to abortion before fetal viability, which is generally considered to be around 23 weeks into a pregnancy. States could restrict abortion after that and health care providers who do not want to provide abortions for moral or religious reasons would be protected.
Collins previously said she would not support the bill because it goes further than merely codifying Roe and she expressed concern that it could eliminate protections for health workers who have moral objections to participating in abortion.
“Our legislation would enshrine these important protections into law without undercutting statutes that have been in place for decades and provide basic conscience protections that are relied upon by health care providers who have religious objections to performing abortions,” she said in a statement.
The House approved the bill in September, 218 to 211, with support from all Democrats except one. All Republicans opposed it.
Story by Jennifer Haberkorn of the Los Angeles Times. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.