Failed Anti-Abortion Bills Seen as Winning Political Issue by Both Parties Heading into 2020 Elections

The Senate failed on Tuesday to muster enough support to pass two bills meant to restrict access to late-term abortions and to criminally punish some doctors who perform the medical procedure.

But Republicans and Democrats saw the measures, which were doomed from the outset, as an opportunity to remind voters where they stand on the issue.

"Defining the positions of the parties on important questions like this is a valuable use of our time," Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Newsweek. "I think it's recognition that, given the polarized environment, there's not a lot of chance to get things done."

Abortion legislation can place certain lawmakers in a difficult position that transcends party lines. Such legislation never fails to inflame partisan divides in American politics—particularly in an election year.

The bills—led by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.)—failed to gain the needed 60 votes to surpass Democrats' filibuster. The unsuccessful outcome came as no surprise, given the GOP-controlled chamber's 53-47 makeup and the proposals' prior failed attempts. The votes were 53-44 and 56-41, with some lawmakers crossing party lines.

Yet with an election just months away, going on the record about the legislation offers a multipronged political opportunity for members of both parties.

abortion winning political issue democrats republicans election
Anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court during the March for Life on January 24. Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty

Graham's bill, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would ban abortions after 20 weeks, with some exceptions: the mother's life is in danger, rape (if the woman has "obtained counseling") and incest or sex with a minor. It also states that unborn babies after 20 weeks can feel pain, a belief at odds with some medical professionals. Abortions after 20 weeks, which in most states are already illegal except in certain medical cases, accounted for only about 1.2 percent of the procedures in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sasse's bill, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, would punish health care practitioners with fines or jail time who do not utilize all options to save a child born alive after an abortion, a rare occurrence. Abortion-rights advocates say such a bill is aimed at curbing access to abortions because it is already against the kill a born-alive baby after abortion, also known as infanticide.

For Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the two votes allow them to further solidify support among their bases. That includes McConnell himself, as the Kentucky Republican faces a formidable Democratic challenger. At least two recent statewide polls touted by the campaign of his opponent, Amy McGrath, have shown the candidates statistically tied.

The two votes also place some Democrats at odds with their own party, such as vulnerable Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.), as well as anti-abortion Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Casey and Manchin voted with Republicans to support Graham's late-term abortion ban. All three Democrats voted with their GOP counterparts to back Sasse's born-alive bill.

Jones tamped down the notion that his split stance would hurt him politically in such a conservative state. "Folks always try to put it in a spotlight headed into an election," he told Newsweek. "We're taking a different approach, and I feel good about where we are."

Republicans regularly seek to paint Democrats as supporters of infanticide when they vote against such measures.

"I can't imagine being for infanticide, so this should be a unifying issue," said Senator Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a survivor of sexual assault.

Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) labeled the bills "common sense measures."

"We may not be able to get on the same page when it comes to recognizing the inherent value that each of these lives hold," Ernst said Monday on the chamber's floor. "But surely we can agree that protecting our most vulnerable from painful death is a unifying and humanitarian cause."

Democrats also get to please their bases. But more important, they can accuse Republicans of trying to take away women's health care rights and paint McConnell as a hypocrite who oversees a "legislative graveyard" yet allows an issue like abortion to receive attention.

Moreover, two of the more moderate Republicans—Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats against Graham's late-term ban.

Aside from aiding President Donald Trump's acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, McConnell has blocked hundreds of House bills in the past year from being debated or receiving a vote. And he has long focused on Senate confirmation of Trump's judicial nominees rather than on legislation.

"This is a Republican attempt at partisan politics to rile up their base, and what it really is is an attack on women's ability to make their own health care choices at an extremely difficult time in their lives," Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the committee that handles health, told Newsweek.

"Where are prescription drug costs, where is transportation, where is climate change, where is election security?" she asked, referring to House-passed measures not considered in the Senate. "Nope, we're not doing any of that. We're attacking women."

McConnell, who's historically been against "show-votes," was accused of doing just that by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

"These bills are not intended to fix real problems faced by real Americans," the New York Democrat said on the chamber's floor. "They are intended to provoke fear and misunderstanding about a very difficult issue so Republicans can score political points with their far-right base."

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