The battle over abortion rights made its way to the Senate floor on Tuesday when Republicans – helmed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – brought two longstanding bills with little chance of passage up for votes before the chamber.
The bills, which both failed and have been introduced annually over the past few years, pinned down senators’ stances on a divisive 2020 issue as several senators face tough reelections and followed through on a request from President Donald Trump.
They allowed Republicans to capitalize on last year’s state-level anti-abortion momentum in the lead up to November’s election, as well as to bolster Trump’s recent efforts to secure the support of anti-abortion voters by painting Democrats as extremists on the issue. While neither measure was expected to garner the 60 votes needed to advance, bringing them up for a vote gave Senate Republicans fodder to pressure moderate Democrats on their voting records – particularly competitive Senate races as McConnell seeks to energize conservative voters to help keep the GOP’s majority in the chamber.
The first bill, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would ban abortion at 20 weeks based on the scientifically disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain at that point in development. The measure, sponsored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, would clash with the 24-week threshold established by Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion nationwide prior to viability.
The bill failed 53-44, with Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia voting in support of the measure and Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska opposing it.
When asked why bring up the bill now, Graham said Tuesday before the vote that “we vote on it every year.” He also acknowledged his bill’s low odds of success, saying that while he hoped the bill would do well, “I know we won’t get 60 but I think we can get 50 (votes).”
Trump specifically named the issue during his State of the Union address earlier this month.
“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb,” he said. “Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.”
The second bill to be considered Tuesday is the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, pertains to cases in which “an abortion results in the live birth of an infant.” It would require abortion providers to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age.” Opponents have argued that such measures restrict abortion access by threatening health care providers.
Only three Democrats broke rank on the second bill, with Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones joining Casey and Manchin to vote for the bill for a final tally of 56-41.
Both Sasse and Graham are up for reelection in 2020.
Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote on Tuesday, Sasse looked to differentiate his bill from Graham’s 20-week bill, claiming that while he supported both measures, his bill “is not in any way an abortion bill.”
“It is addressing some cases of infant mortality by making sure that babies that have survived abortion get care.”
Casey and Manchin both indicated Monday that they would again back both bills.
“They’re the same two bills that we’ve had votes on the last couple of years, and I’ll be yes on both,” Casey said.
Manchin pointed to his consistency on the issue, saying, “I always voted for them, just check the record – nothing changes.”
Anti-abortion supporters lauded the bills ahead of the vote, referencing Trump’s strong stance on the issue and slamming Democrats’ stance as extreme.
“As Republicans continue to support important pro-life policies, Democrats are bowing to the most radical elements of their party & refusing to protect babies still in their mother’s womb,” Vice President Mike Pence tweeted Tuesday. “We urge Americans everywhere to call their Senators & tell them to put life FIRST today.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the major anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List that has long backed Trump, said in a statement Tuesday that “Democrats have an opportunity today to stop their abortion extremism by joining Republicans to ban painful late-term abortions and infanticide.”
“President Trump stands ready to sign both these popular, life-saving bills into law – it is only the abortion extremism of the Democratic Party that stands in the way,” she added.
Abortion rights supporters attacked the bills as thinly veiled attempts to curtail abortion access.
Jacqueline Ayers, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of government relations and public policy, said in a statement Monday that “these bills push misinformation meant to end access to abortion, and serve no other purpose than to shame patients and deny people the ability to make the best medical decisions for themselves and their families.”
She asserted that “the politicians behind these bills have one ultimate goal in mind: to ban access to safe, legal abortion in this country.”
The ACLU tweeted Tuesday, “Anti-abortion politicians are attempting to attack our rights on the federal level again. Reminder to the Senate: Abortion is a constitutional right.”
Senate Republicans have already taken other steps this year to advance anti-abortion efforts. Last month, 39 Republican senators joined 168 members of the House of Representatives, almost all of them Republicans, in filing a brief to urge the Supreme Court to reconsider – if not overrule – Roe.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more precisely reflect the language used in Sasse’s bill.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.