Lindsey Graham’s anti-abortion legislation once unified the Republican Party. The 15-week abortion ban he pitched Tuesday had the exact opposite effect.
The South Carolina senator chose a uniquely tense moment to unveil his party’s first bill limiting abortion access since this summer’s watershed reversal of Roe v. Wade. It was designed as a nod to anti-abortion activists who have never felt more emboldened. Yet Graham’s bill also attempted to skate past a Republican Party that’s divided over whether Congress should even be legislating on abortion after the Supreme Court struck down a nationwide right to terminate pregnancies.
And some fellow Republicans said they were highly perplexed at Graham’s decision to introduce a new abortion ban — more conservative than his previous proposals — at a precarious moment for the party.
“I don’t think there’s an appetite for a national platform here. My state, today, is working on this. I’m not sure what he’s thinking here. But I don’t think there will be a rallying around that concept,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I don’t think there’s much of an appetite to go that direction.”
Graham’s past pitches for a 20-week abortion ban attracted most Republicans’ support and even the votes of some Senate Democrats. His latest effort would leave in place state laws that are even more restrictive while also imposing new limits in blue states that currently have none. Coming less than 60 days before the midterms, it’s riled some Republicans, who are watching their once-dominant polling advantage shrink since the Roe reversal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that questions about the bill should be directed to Graham and that most Republican senators “prefer this be handled at the state level.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested Graham had gone a bit rogue with his latest legislation: “That wasn’t a conference decision. It was an individual senator’s decision.”
“There’s obviously a split of opinion in terms of whether abortion law should be decided by the states … and those who want to set some sort of minimum standard,” Cornyn said of the 50-member Senate GOP conference. “I would keep an open mind on this but my preference would be for those decisions to be made on a state-by-state basis.”
Graham’s bill bans the procedure nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a priority of many prominent anti-abortion activists who have been demanding a far more aggressive response from the GOP. It includes exceptions for rape, incest and pregnancies that threaten maternal health.
While public polling shows majority opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in June, it also shows support for some limits on abortion. Republicans have often parried questions about their positions by turning the spotlight onto Democrats, who generally support no legislative limits on terminating pregnancy.
“There is a consensus view by the most prominent pro-life groups in America that this is where America should be at the federal level,” Graham said. “I don’t think this is going to hurt us. I think it will more likely hurt [Democrats] when they try to explain to some reasonable person why it’s OK to be more like Iran and less like France on abortion.”
Senate Republicans did not broach the subject at their Tuesday strategy lunch, according to attendees.
Nonetheless, the bill could cause especially acute problems for the party’s Senate hopefuls. McConnell said he trusted each individual candidate to calibrate their own positions.
Several Republican campaigns did not immediately respond to questions about Graham’s bill, but Herschel Walker, the GOP Senate nominee in Georgia, said he’d back the legislation.
“Raphael Warnock wants to protect the killing of babies right up to the moment of birth. We need to do better,” Walker said in a statement to POLITICO. “I am a proud pro-life Christian, and I will always stand up for our unborn children. I believe the issue should be decided at the state level, but I WOULD support this policy.”
Others, however, are steering clear. A spokesperson for Washington GOP Senate nominee Tiffany Smiley said that she opposes the Graham bill and believes that states should decide their abortion laws. And Colorado GOP Senate nominee Joe O’Dea made clear he too doesn’t support the bill as he faces Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in the Democratic-leaning state.
“A Republican ban is as reckless and tone deaf as is Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s hostility to” compromise, said O’Dea, who said he supports protecting abortion access early in pregnancies and applying “sensible limits” to late-term procedures.
Several Republican senators said they are largely disinterested in rallying behind the bill at a critical moment in the battle for the Senate. Republicans are in the chamber’s minority at the moment, meaning they couldn’t force a vote even if they wanted to. Even if they did, it has nowhere near the 60 votes to pass the Senate.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called it a “messaging bill” in the current dynamics — one that doesn’t tackle the big themes Republicans are trying to run on in the midterms.
“What I want to do is have a discussion about the inflation numbers today and a number of other things that I think are going to have a consequence in the election,” said Tillis, who has supported Graham’s previous 20-week abortion ban.
Even among Republicans who personally support the bill, some say it’s a potential distraction from their post-Roe-reversal strategy. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Republicans in both chambers have stuck to a carefully honed message: It’s up to individual states to decide their abortion policies.
Yet anti-abortion activists are demanding more. In a letter sent to lawmakers on Monday, dozens of groups called for “important federal policies” including “gestational limits” and “addressing dangerous mail-order chemical abortion” — issues that GOP leaders have said little about since the high court’s ruling.
Instead, many across the GOP have been preoccupied with what they see as a more urgent task: Ensuring their candidates can endure the wave of Democratic attacks on abortion that are now dominating the airwaves.
While Republicans have opposed abortion as a formal party stance for decades, many of their candidates are frequently forced to address more precise policy questions such as whether rape survivors should have access to abortion. Several GOP hopefuls have stumbled on that during the current cycle, and Democrats have gone on offense ever since the Roe decision.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said “it’s great that [Republicans are] showing the American people that they’re really focused on taking away a fundamental right.” Across the Capitol, however, the House GOP’s campaign chief insisted that abortion would not be the dominant issue in November.
Democrats “don’t have a message right now,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said. He accused Democrats of supporting abortion-access legislation that he called a “Chinese genocide” bill which would allow abortion up until the moment “a child takes its first breath.”
“I call it the Chinese genocide bill because the only two countries with a radical position on abortion like that are China and North Korea,” Emmer added.
A spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee chief clarified that Emmer’s comment referred to Democrats’ signature party-line abortion rights bill. That Democratic bill expands access in certain cases while seeking to codify Roe; it does not directly permit unfettered late-term abortion.
Emmer’s reference befuddled his Democratic counterpart as campaigns chief, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.).
“It’s not Chinese genocide, or whatever the hell that is, to say we want to go back to having reproductive freedom,” Maloney said. “I mean, what the hell is he talking about?”
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