Marco Rubio’s next fight: Abortion?

At the behest of antiabortion groups, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is considering becoming a lead sponsor of legislation that would ban abortions 20 weeks after fertilization.

Why is Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential contender, wading into this political thicket? The fact that he is mulling it over 1) is a reflection of the growing scope of the abortion debate nationally and 2) could signal a desire to bolster his standing on the political right on the heels of a rough battle over immigration.

(Lynne Sladky/AP)

(Lynne Sladky/AP)

Aside from personal motivations, there is a political upside for Rubio. He would be jumping headfirst into a broadening national fight on an issue that has seized the attention of social conservatives.

"This is a hot issue right now in the states and across the country and something he feels strongly about — the sanctity of life — and he's engaging on it," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist. "It would be a mistake to think this a new thing to do as a reaction."

While Fred Barnes reported in the Weekly Standard on Tuesday night that Rubio had signed onto the bill already, that decision is not yet final.

"The pro-life groups have asked him to introduce the bill in the Senate," a Rubio adviser wrote in an e-mail, asking not to be identified because the issue was still under discussion. "He had not made a final decision before leaving on a family vacation this week. I expect an announcement when he gets back to D.C. next week."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill this year similar to the original bill authored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), banning abortions beyond 20 weeks in the District of Columbia. The Franks bill was expanded to cover the entire country, and antiabortion groups are now discussing whether Lee or Rubio will take the lead on a broad bill, according to people involved in the discussions.

In an interview Wednesday, National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson said his group would welcome Rubio's involvement. "We think Rubio would be a wonderful sponsor," Johnson said. "He's a strongly pro-life senator and he's already stepped forward on pro-life legislation."

As Rubio weighs a decision, this much is clear: The debate over abortion has been thrust squarely back onto the national radar in recent months following a string of developments at the state and federal levels. On Capitol Hill, the House recently passed the most sweeping abortion restriction in a decade. The measure aimed to capitalize on outrage over Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion provider who was convicted of first-degree murder in a case involving three babies born alive in his clinic.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a budget with abortion restrictions. And lawmakers in Texas are poised to pass new restrictions following a temporary setback spearheaded by a Democratic state lawmaker whose filibuster won national acclaim from liberal activists. North Carolina has also moved toward tightening abortion laws.

So by joining the fight, Rubio would endear himself to social conservatives, who play an outsize role in early presidential nominating states like Iowa and South Carolina.

And the timing is key. Rubio is coming off a bruising immigration battle that has reduced his standing on the right. While those involved in the abortion fight don't have a real stake in that debate, it's clear that Rubio needs to repair his brand among conservatives generally. And forcefully entering the abortion fight could be a first step.

But it would be a step fraught with peril. Fights over abortion have burned several Republicans in the past two years — former congressman Todd Akin, former congressman Richard Mourdock, and just last month, Franks. And embracing an abortion fight could dampen Rubio's appeal to the political middle, which was bolstered by his work on immigration.

What's more, the Democratic-controlled Senate is not expected to take up any legislation designed to restrict abortion laws. "I don’t know what Sen. Rubio wants but Senator Reid is not going to bring up this bill," said an aide to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment.

Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, whose political action committee funds antiabortion candidates, said Republicans should welcome the opportunity to engage on the national debate over what limits need to be placed on abortions and abortion providers.

"It’s not that Republicans can’t be smart and savvy, it’s all a matter of time, focus and attention," she said, adding that coalescing around issues such as a 20-week ban on abortion could rally the public. "True leadership on this is you bring the public to a point of consensus."

Republicans were burned on the issue last year, Dannenfelser said, because of the controversial remarks and lack of an "overarching narrative in terms of what we’re talking about on the abortion issue."

Perhaps Rubio, a gifted speaker and natural communicator, will be the Republican who is capable of framing such a narrative. Time will tell. For now, we know this much: Engaging in an abortion fight is a risky proposition, even for the most experienced pols. But the fact that Rubio is considering it suggests he both cares about the issue and is not about to be outflanked on his right on a matter that has energized social conservatives across the country.

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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