WASHINGTON — Republicans on Monday blocked the Senate from taking up sweeping abortion rights legislation as Democrats sought to put lawmakers on the record on the issue in advance of the midterm elections and a coming Supreme Court ruling on access to abortion.
Democrats fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to bring the Women’s Health Protection Act to the floor for consideration after the House last September passed it on a narrow party-line vote. One Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, joined all Republicans in opposition to beginning debate on the measure.
Lawmakers said it was the first time that the Senate had voted on a separate bill to enact the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade into law. The outcome was anticipated, but Democrats were determined to hold the vote as members of both parties draw battle lines over what is expected to be a major election-year issue. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court is set to rule later this year on a case that could undermine or overturn the landmark abortion decision.
“We want Americans to know where their legislators stand on this important issue,” said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat and a leading backer of the abortion rights bill.
The measure would codify in federal law abortion rights that have long been protected by the 1973 court ruling. It was pursued by Democrats and abortion rights groups as a way to counter the increasingly severe abortion restrictions being enacted at the state level as well as the prospect of a high court ruling upholding tough new abortion limits in Mississippi and leaving in place a Texas law that has severely limited abortion in that state.
“People are counting on the Senate to do what the Supreme Court will not,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
About two dozen states have readied legislation that would immediately restrict abortion rights if the court upholds the Mississippi law, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, about two months earlier than Roe and subsequent decisions allow.
During Supreme Court arguments in December, conservative justices indicated a willingness to scale back, if not undo, the federal abortion protections and leave most of the regulation up to individual states. Democrats say the measure is needed to guarantee that women around the nation have equal access to abortion and to prevent states from imposing restrictions that are not medically necessary as a way to unconstitutionally curtail abortion.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, decided to move forward with a vote on the Democratic bill despite the Republican opposition in the Senate, calling it a “dark, dark time” for abortion rights in the United States.
“Abortion has never been more at risk in America,” he said.
Abortion rights opponents say the proposed legislation, which President Biden has said he would sign if it reached his desk, goes far beyond the scope of the Roe decision, and would allow late-term abortions and eliminate state restrictions on abortion that have strong public support.
The State of Abortion in the U.S.
“The misnamed Women’s Health Protection Act is the most radical abortion bill in United States history,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life. “It would enshrine into federal law abortion on demand until the moment of birth, and it would nullify state laws — new and existing — that protect unborn children and their mothers.”
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, criticized Democrats for holding a “show vote” on the Senate floor when there were more pressing issues such as the conflict in Ukraine to consider. He predicted the maneuver would backfire on Democrats, noting that public opinion polls show most Americans favor some restrictions on abortion, particularly late-term procedures.
“Yet again our colleagues wish to demonstrate that the radical left fringe runs today’s Democratic Party,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor before the vote. “I want to thank the Senate majority leader for making it clear where his party’s priorities lie.”
Both sides are bracing for abortion rights to be a major issue in the November elections, particularly if a high court decision in May or June is seen as gutting Roe. While abortion has traditionally been seen as an issue that is a stronger motivator for conservatives, Democrats say that a court decision striking down Roe and the spread of new abortion restrictions around the nation could rally women voters and turn the issue in their favor.
Democrats did not try to disguise the fact that Monday’s vote was aimed at getting Republicans on the record.
“Make no mistake,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a chief author of the legislation, “reproductive freedom will be on the ballot in November.”