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Democrats lose Senate vote to codify abortion rights into federal law

By Lauren Gambino in Washington
Senator Patty Murray and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, speak to press after the abortion vote.
Senator Patty Murray and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, speak to press after the abortion vote. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

The US Senate on Wednesday failed to advance legislation that would codify the right to an abortion into federal law, after it was blocked by Republicans.

It was a largely symbolic vote by Democrats to mobilize Americans around the issue ahead of a likely supreme court decision striking down the protections enshrined by Roe v Wade.

The Senate roll call was a stark reflection of the partisan divide over abortion rights, with all Republicans and one conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voting against the measure. The final tally was 49-51, well short of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

“Sadly the Senate failed to stand in defense of a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body,” Kamala Harris, the first woman and woman of color to serve as vice-president, told reporters outside of the Senate chamber, where she presided over the doomed vote. Pointing to the onslaught of laws restricting abortion access in Republican-led states, Harris said that “the priority should be to elect pro-choice leaders at the local, the state and the federal level”.

Joe Biden, who has called on the Democratic-controlled Congress to protect abortion rights, blamed Republicans, saying they “have chosen to stand in the way of Americans’ rights to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies, families and lives”.

Kamala Harris speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber.
Kamala Harris speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The president vowed to sign any bill that would secure reproductive rights and pledged to explore ways his administration could act in lieu of Congress.

Democrats moved quickly to stage the vote after a leak last week of a draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito in February and confirmed as authentic, indicated that the court’s conservative majority had privately voted to strike down Roe and subsequent rulings. The extraordinary disclosure ignited protests around the country, pushing reproductive rights to the center of the political debate six months before the congressional midterms. A final ruling from the court is expected this summer.

Ahead of the vote, a group of House Democratic women marched across the Capitol to protest against the end of Roe, chanting: “My body, my decision.”

Democrats, under intensifying pressure to act, saw a political opportunity in forcing Republicans to vote against a bill protecting abortion at a moment when the threat to access is urgent and polls show a majority of Americans want the procedure to remain legal in all or some cases.

They hope to use the Republican blockade as a data point in their midterm message to voters: that the GOP has become a party of “ultra-Maga” extremists, on the cusp of fulfilling a decades-long goal to strip women of their reproductive rights.

It is an issue Democrats hope will energize young voters disenchanted by the Biden administration and persuade Republican-leaning suburban women to back them again this cycle.

The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, urging support for the measure, warned that a failure to protect abortion access would put at risk other individual rights like contraception and same-sex marriage.

“If we do not take a stand now to protect a woman’s right to choose, then mark my words, it will be open season, open season on our God-given freedoms,” Schumer said in a floor speech ahead of a vote that he called “one of the most consequential we will take in decades”.

Representatives Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Nikema Williams of Georgia and Veronica Escobar of Texas lead a march of Democratic women to advocate for abortion rights.
Representatives Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Nikema Williams of Georgia and Veronica Escobar of Texas lead a march of Democratic women to advocate for abortion rights. Photograph: Julia Nikhinson/Reuters

If passed, the bill would have codified Roe v Wade into federal law, ensuring the right of healthcare providers to perform abortions and the right of patients to receive them. But it would also go further, in some cases invalidating state-level restrictions on abortion access enacted after the Roe decision in 1973.

As such, Republicans cast the bill as a “radical” attempt to expand reproductive rights that goes far beyond Roe and would legalize “abortion on demand”.

“We will stand with the American people, stand with innocent life, and block the Democrats’ extreme bill,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said on Wednesday.

Republicans are betting the economy will take precedence over abortion this November. Polling shows Republicans are well positioned to make significant gains in the midterm elections, buoyed by historical headwinds, discontent with the party in power and widespread concern over the rising cost of gas, food and rent.

But there are signs that Republicans do worry about a potential political backlash if Roe is overturned and states move swiftly to outlaw abortion, as many are preparing to do.

A day ahead of the vote, McConnell, who effectively secured a conservative super-majority on the supreme court, sought to downplay calls for a nationwide ban on abortion if they take control of the chamber in November, telling reporters: “Historically, there have been abortion votes on the floor of the Senate. None of them have achieved 60 votes.”

The two Senate Republicans who support abortion rights, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, opposed the bill, instead urging support for an alternative measure that they say is tailored to reflect the landscape of abortion rights. But many Democrats see their proposal, which is not expected to receive a vote, as too weak.

“Unlike some far-left activists, Senator Murkowski and I want the law today to be the law tomorrow,” Collins said on Wednesday, objecting to the lack of protections for religious exemptions in the Democrats’ bill.

In a dramatic shift, one of the only other Democrats in Congress with conservative views on abortion rights, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, said he would support the measure and voted in favor of advancing it. In a statement citing the leaked supreme court ruling, Casey said the “circumstances around the entire debate on abortion” had changed since the last time the Senate voted on the measure.

Abortion is also likely to be a major issue in races for governor and state offices, as the battle lines shift to the states, where Democrats are racing to secure and expand abortion access and Republicans are working to limit, or in some cases, outlaw it.

The show vote on Wednesday only intensified calls from progressives for Democrats to eliminate the filibuster or carve out an exception for abortion rights. But at this point, there are not 60 votes to codify Roe, and there is not enough Democratic support to eliminate or amend the Senate filibuster.

Without a clear legislative path forward, Democrats are turning to the fall elections, urging Americans to elect them as the “last lines of defense” against the end of Roe.

“I am angry and I’m disappointed,” Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and a long-time advocate of reproductive rights, said after Wednesday’s vote. She urged Americans concerned over the threat to abortion to not lose hope.

“Now is not the time to back down or sit down,” she said. “Now is the time to lift up our voices and fight back. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”


• This article was amended on 12 May 2022. Joe Manchin serves as a senator for West Virginia, not Virginia as an earlier version said.

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Dive Deeper:
Democrats lose Senate vote to codify abortion rights 49-51 – as it happened
Democrat Joe Manchin sides with Republicans in voting against the measure
US Senate to vote on abortion rights bill -- but what would it mean to codify Roe into law?
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on May 11, 2022, on a bill that would enshrine the right to…
Senate to vote on abortion rights; Democrats hope to send message
WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats plan to vote Wednesday on a bill to establish a federal right to abortion in hopes…
Senate rejects move to codify abortion rights - Roll Call
The 49-51 vote on a procedural motion was the second time this year an abortion rights bill by Democrats stalled in the…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Senate to vote on a bill that codifies abortion protections, but it will likely fail
Senators will vote on the Women's Health Protection Act on Wednesday, but it likely will fail because there isn't enough…
Senate Democrats fail to pass legislation to protect abortion rights as Roe hangs in the balance
Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition effectively killed the legislation’s chances.
Get all your news in one place