Republicans, on cusp of abortion win, seek to change the subject

Photo for The Washington Post by Oliver Contreras
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flanked by other GOP leaders, at a news conference Wednesday.

Every January, congressional Republicans have marked the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade with a political ritual.

They host constituents joining the annual March for Life and often participate themselves. Many give speeches on the House and Senate floors decrying the court’s establishment of a constitutional right to abortion. And, if they are in the majority, GOP leaders hold votes on bills that would further restrict that right – heralding a day when Roe might be rescinded entirely.

That day now appears to be at hand. An extraordinary leak of a draft opinion this week indicated that the Supreme Court may be on the cusp of overturning Roe and probably triggering new restrictions on abortion in some two dozen states. Yet few Republicans have openly celebrated, even though Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion would, if adopted by the court, fulfill what is perhaps the conservative movement’s single most enduring policy goal.

Instead, many GOP lawmakers – including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, an architect of a conservative revolution in the federal courts – said they were more concerned about the leak and its implications than the substance of the opinion. Many ascribed the subdued reaction to mere wariness over celebrating a decision that has not actually been handed down.

“We’ve been on this roller coaster before,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a leader among antiabortion lawmakers. “They were all-in in February. Are they all still in in June or whenever they release it?”

Several other Republicans said they saw no advantage in engaging in the debate over abortion rights that Democrats have been eager to spark in recent days.

For months, the GOP has been on the rhetorical offensive against President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats – hammering them on the Afghanistan withdrawal, on increasing homicide rates, on a chaotic southern border and on seemingly ever-rising inflation. But, unlike with those issues, public opinion runs sharply against the GOP on abortion, suggesting the party could pay a significant political price if Roe is overturned. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 54% of Americans want the ruling upheld vs. 28% wanting it overturned.

Asked about the leak-focused messaging, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he believed voters would be more focused on immigration, crime and, especially, the economy. “Inflation is at an all-time high. Gas prices are at an all-time high,” said Barrasso, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “People are going to make a decision about the impact on their own personal lives, and that’s why we’re going to take the House and take the Senate.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, another member of GOP leadership, told radio host Hugh Hewitt much the same Wednesday, saying overturning Roe would amount to “a little blip” in the current political environment. “I don’t see that as being a decision point for Iowa voters,” she said. “I think Republicans are going to seize the Senate.”

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said Democrats were “trying to dig out of a deep hole” politically by elevating the threat to abortion rights and “to get the narrative off the border, inflation, crime, all the other issues.”

“I’ve been more focused on trying to fix real issues, and, sadly, we get deflected and distracted in many cases,” he said.

Democrats have been eager to make the case that the erosion of abortion rights is very much a real issue to millions of American women, especially those in states that are poised to enact strict new bans on the procedure if Roe is overturned.

Democratic lawmakers and candidates have surged to reporter gaggles and cable television cameras in recent days in defense of the constitutional status quo. Senate Democrats’ campaign arm issued a statement less than an hour after Politico first published the leaked opinion, declaring that it had “dramatically escalated the stakes of the 2022 election,” and candidate after candidate soon followed.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said McConnell’s admonition Tuesday to “concentrate on . . . not a leaked draft but the fact that the draft was leaked” amounted to a brazen and ill-fated attempt to deflect public attention away from the substance of Alito’s arguments to dismantle Roe.

“It is like their eerie silence during the end of the debate on gay marriage – all of the talk about family values and so forth disappeared when they looked at the polling and they were on the wrong side of history,” he said. “They’re on the wrong side again.”

Already there are signs that Republicans, despite their years of activism, are not fully prepared for the thorny political ramifications of a post-Roe political atmosphere. A National Republican Senatorial Committee memo issued Tuesday counseled GOP candidates to be “compassionate, consensus builders,” and to attack Democrats for their support of access to late-term abortions and taxpayer funding of abortions. But it also advised them to pivot away from the issue entirely.

“Democrats want to obsess and spread lies about abortion because they’ve not only failed to address the concerns of the American people; their agenda has made things worse,” the memo reads.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the NRSC’s chairman, put that advice into action Wednesday, telling reporters asking about the draft ruling that “we don’t know what [the court] is going to say . . . but, I’ll tell you, the Democrats are the radical ones here – I mean, they want abortion up until birth.”

Several Republican senators dodged questions about possible implications of Roe being overturned, including the possibility that states might ban abortions even in cases involving rape or incest or the potential for conservative members of Congress to pursue nationwide restrictions on abortion – even an outright federal ban.

Most sitting Senate Republicans have voted multiple times to advance a bill that would ban abortion nationally after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a threshold that meets the post-viability standard set out by the Supreme Court in Roe and the subsequent Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling. The bills garnered majorities in 2018 and 2020 but failed to advance, blocked by the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule.

While many Republican senators emphasized that Alito’s opinion, if adopted by the court, would return the abortion issue to the states, only a few were willing to rule out a legislated federal ban on abortion – such as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who said: “I don’t think we should be passing national laws. I’d leave it up to the states.”

Asked about the prospect for such a national ban, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Tuesday did not explicitly rule out voting for one but played down the possibility it would ever become law, given the filibuster.

“Right now, let’s absorb this decision,” he said, adding, “I don’t see 60 votes to ban abortion.”

Lankford, a Baptist minister who holds a leadership role in the Senate’s Pro-Life Caucus, acknowledged that he would support a national abortion ban but also said he would continue to support the filibuster rules. He, too, sought to minimize the possibility that any such legislation would ever become law, despite his support for it.

The court, he said, is “actually saying this goes to the people – if the people elect individuals to say, ‘Hey, we want to guard life,’ that’s the direction it goes, whether it’s in states or nationally. . . . States are going to treat it differently. And on the federal side, we’re going to be locked up for a long time on this.”

Braun, too, would not rule out voting for such a ban, while suggesting it would probably not come to pass: “I’ve been outspoken about believing in the sanctity of life. But whenever you look at any of the extreme, absolute kind of conclusions, obviously, I don’t think those are ever going to occur.”

With no final abortion decision expected from the Supreme Court until next month at the earliest, Democrats are hoping to keep the future of abortion rights in the public eye for at least a little bit longer as Republicans try to move attention back to the economy and other issues.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., moved Tuesday to bring a revised bill that would write the protections of Roe and Casey into federal law to the Senate floor as soon as next week. A similar bill failed to advance in February, and the revised bill, which omits pages of fact-finding that some moderates found to be divisive, is aimed at attracting a small handful of holdout senators. But it is unlikely to draw enough support to vault the 60-vote threshold.

For instance, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of two GOP supporters of abortion rights in the Senate, said Wednesday she did not believe the Democratic bill provided sufficient protections for the conscience rights of antiabortion health providers.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the bill’s lead author, said regardless of the outcome it is important to put lawmakers on the record on whether they support abortion rights.

“People regard abortion as an intensely personal decision, and they don’t want the government intruding into their homes and bedrooms,” he said. “Once they begin to grasp the seismic effects of this ruling and its ramifications in other spheres of constitutional guarantees, I think [Republicans] are going to rue the day.”