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Opinion Chris Murphy’s urgent abortion warning reveals a hidden GOP threat

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
5 min

The Supreme Court’s expected reversal of Roe v. Wade is a moment that conservatives have feverishly anticipated for decades. For many of them, the battle against abortion has been the central moral struggle of their time, an earthly stand-in for Armageddon itself.

So do you believe that once back in power, they’ll let a trifling procedural relic like the Senate filibuster stand in the way of decisive, absolute, rapturous triumph?

Sen. Chris Murphy doesn’t. If the court overturns Roe, the Connecticut Democrat says, once Republicans take control of Congress and the White House they’ll end the legislative filibuster to pass a national abortion ban with a simple majority in the Senate.

“When the opportunity presents itself, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll change the rules to pass a bill criminalizing abortion federally,” Murphy told me in an interview.

This lays bare a nightmare scenario for Democrats. It isn’t just that Republicans might succeed in passing such a ban. It’s also that Democrats might fail to suspend the filibuster themselves to pass national abortion rights protections, and then see Republicans successfully end the filibuster to pass a national ban.

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Many Democrats have called for a suspension of the filibuster to codify abortion rights protections, now that the leaked draft of a court ruling signals Roe’s likely demise. But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) opposes both ending the filibuster and codifying abortion rights, and it’s delusional to imagine a few moderate GOP senators will help supply the votes needed to accomplish both.

Which means that nightmare scenario for Democrats is a live possibility.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to keep the legislative filibuster if Republicans win the Senate majority. And it’s true that McConnell refrained from nixing it while Republicans held the majority from 2017 through 2020.

But conditions will be vastly different for Republicans if they retain total control in 2025, after the court has overturned Roe. In that case, the filibuster will be all that’s standing in the way of a higher purpose that has been the aim of literally decades of zealous crusading.

Indeed, Katherine Stewart, the author of a well-regarded book about religious right-wing nationalism, points out that the antiabortion movement is aiming even higher than a national legislative ban. Its leaders hope to ban it by constitutional amendment, and a court decision ending Roe is a mere way station along the way.

“We are seeing the consequences of decades of planning by the movement to end abortion,” Stewart tells me.

As Stewart notes, the drive to end abortion has been central to the “pact” that the modern GOP has forged with “America’s religious nationalists.” And they see this battle as an “apocalyptic struggle between absolute good and its opposite," Stewart says.

What’s more, says Stewart, a key reason the GOP has grown so radicalized is that Christian nationalists have succeeded in mounting primary challenges to sitting Republicans from the right: “They have seized control of the party."

In this context, one has to ask: Even if you accept McConnell’s vow to keep the filibuster, is this a promise he can actually keep?

Imagine that, with Republicans controlling the White House and Congress in 2025, Senate Democrats filibuster legislation banning abortion nationally. Would Republicans really stop there and say, “Oh well, we tried”? As Stewart says, that “seems very unlikely.”

McConnell might also face intense pressure from inside the GOP caucus to end the filibuster, notes congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, a longtime and prescient observer of McConnell and GOP radicalization.

You already see GOP legislatures everywhere preparing to radically restrict abortion rights in anticipation of the court ruling. Despite the myth of McConnell’s tactical supremacy, Ornstein notes, McConnell sometimes fails to control his caucus, and would struggle to keep the filibuster under these circumstances, even if he wanted to.

“I think there would be a leadership challenge,” Ornstein tells me.

McConnell himself recently indicated how all this might go. Earlier this year, when Democrats debated ending the filibuster, McConnell warned that if so, Republicans would pass a host of GOP priorities upon regaining control, including “defunding Planned Parenthood.”

This exposed an underappreciated truth: The filibuster gives Republicans an excuse to not keep campaign promises that would likely prove ultimately unpopular. As Jonathan Chait noted, this implicitly demonstrated that for McConnell, the filibuster is a bulwark against pressure from the right to implement transformative but reactionary legislation that’s out of step with the mainstream.

And so it will be if the court overturns Roe. But under those conditions, that pressure will probably overwhelm that bulwark.

“This march toward criminalizing abortion is a perpetual motion machine they cannot stop,” Murphy said. “The pressure on them internally and externally to change the rules will be immense.”

All of which suggests a way forward for Democrats. As Brian Beutler argues, they could state clearly that if voters deliver them a few more senators in the midterms, they will use that larger majority to both suspend the filibuster and protect abortion rights.

“We can make it clear that if we have two or three more Democrats in the Senate, our priority will be changing the rules and protecting the right to choose at the federal level,” Murphy told me. “That would be a big political winner.”

The near-certainty that Republicans will end the filibuster themselves to pass an abortion ban should only strengthen that argument.