Senate Democrats fail to pass legislation to protect abortion rights as Roe hangs in the balance

Senate Democrats’ attempt to enact a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy into US law ended unceremoniously as all 50 Republican senators joined with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to block ending debate on a Democrat-sponsored bill codifying the protections of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the procedural vote on Wednesday, which needed 60 senators to agree to end debate on Women’s Health Protection Act, in the days following the release of a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe last week.

But despite fears among Democrats that a woman’s right to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term is truly at risk, the legislation fell short of the 60-senator threshold, even as Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the vote in hopes of breaking a 50-50 tie — hopes that were dashed Wednesday morning Mr Manchin of West Virginia announced he would vote against it.

“This vote clearly suggests that the Senate is not where the majority of Americans are on this issue,” Ms Harris told reporters after she left the Senate floor. “It also makes clear that a priority for all who care about this issue, the priority should be to elect pro choice Democrats.”

In a statement, President Joe Biden blamed Senate Republicans for blocking the bill at a time when “fundamental rights areas risk at the Supreme Court” and said the Senate’s inaction while women’s rights face an “unprecedented” attack from the court’s conservative majority “runs counter to the will of the majority of American people”.

“Republicans in Congress – not one of whom voted for this bill – have chosen to stand in the way of Americans’ rights to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies, families and lives,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also slammed GOP senators for having “lined up in lockstep behind Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to vote to rip away the Constitutional right to health freedom from American women across the nation”.

“While Democrats are fighting to enshrine Roe v. Wade into law, Republicans remain fully committed to punishing and controlling women’s most personal health decisions,” she said.

Ms Pelosi said the GOP had “mobilized around a dangerous and extremist agenda” that would criminalize “basic forms of reproductive care” in addition to the party’s “long-held and cherished goal” of outlawing abortion.

“In a Republican future, our daughters would, for the first time ever, have fewer freedoms than their mothers,” she said. “And make no mistake: once Republicans eviscerate long-standing precedent and privacy rights with the Roe ruling, they intend to wage an all-out assault on more of our rights – including access to contraception and marriage equality.

Although reproductive rights activists, alarmed by Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe, have spent the week since the draft’s disclosure raising the alarm about the danger of such a development, the atmosphere in the Senate chamber did not come close to matching the intensity of the protests that have taken place over the issue in recent days.

The procedural vote took place amid a series of votes on nominees to fill various executive branch and agency positions, and senators from both parties filed in and out of the chamber during debate as well as the actual vote.

By contrast, many Democratic women members of the House of Representatives were on hand to watch the debate, including Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Veronica Escobar, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Katherine Clark and Judy Chu, the Women’s Health Protection Act’s lead sponsor.

They watched from the back of the chamber as Senator Patty Murray, who leads the Senate Health Education Labor and Pension Committee, gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor defending a woman’s right to an abortion.

“They are coming after your birth control, they are coming after Plan B and IUDs, and right here in the Senate, they are talking about a federal abortion ban,” she said.

While some of Mr Schumer’s critics have questioned why the Democratic leader would hold a vote on the bill when it was well-known that it would not come close to garnering the 60 votes needed for it to move forward, House Democrats were in favour of the attempt to take up the measure.

Rep Ilhan Omar (Getty Images)
Rep Ilhan Omar (Getty Images)

“I think it’s important to have people on the record,” Ms Omar told The Independent before the vote. “And Republicans clearly do not want to protect a woman’s right to choose.”

Ms Pressley said it was important to have the vote for the public to see.

“I’m glad to they’ll be on record today so the electorate can put them on notce,” she said. “I’m not ceding anything yet. We’re going to keep pushing until the very end there.”

Ms Omar said that she thought Republicans would pay a price for the opposition to the legislation.

“We know this is an issue that is very deeply important to the American people,” she said. “There are going to be severe consequences for people that are impeding the freedoms that women have enjoyed for decades.”

But the House members left before the actual vote took place.

The vote came after a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion showed that the court was prepared to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that said seeking an abortion is a constitutional right.

Mr Schumer and many other Democrats said the vote was about putting senators on record.

“We want to see where see where everybody is,” Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, who also serves as chairman of the Democratical Senatorial Campaign Committee, said before the vote. When asked if this would affect any of the Senate races, he said, “We’ll see. See what happens.”

But Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana was skeptical that it would affect the way people vote in the 2022 midterm elections.

“There’s no abortion-related bill here from either side that’s gonna get more than a split vote,” he told The Independent. “The gasoline price alone is enough to upend you in a midterm election.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it was posturing.

“I think it’s a base-driven deal,” she said.

Sen Lindsey Graham (Getty Images)
Sen Lindsey Graham (Getty Images)

No Republican senators joined Democrats in the vote. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin at one point walked in with Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who had alternative legislation to codify Roe but objected to Democrats’ legislation. When a reporter asked if Mr Durbin got her vote, neither said a word.

Similarly, Senator Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska, said she would vote against it, saying she thought abortion was a “legal right” but also respected the need for reasonable limitations.

“So will be opposing the Democrats’ bill that goes far beyond straight codification of Roe and I will continue to try to work to ensure that we are protecting a woman’s right to choose,” she told reporters.

Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia who is up for reelection this year and faces a tough race, said that the blame fell squarely on Republican shoulders.

“Let’s be clear that it’s Republicans who are standing in the way of a woman’s constitutional right to choose and we’ll continue to soldier forward, doing everything we can to protect that right,” he told The Independent. Mr Warnock also waved off a question about whether he would discuss this on the campaign trail.

“I’m thinking about the work that I was hired to do,” he said.