The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate Republicans, Manchin block bill to protect the right to abortion

The vote doomed prospects for the measure that would codify Roe v. Wade

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks at a news conference after a Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 8. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Senate on Monday blocked consideration of a bill to protect the right to abortion nationwide, an election-year measure pushed by Democrats as the Supreme Court decides the fate of the landmark decision guaranteeing access to abortion.

Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) voted against moving ahead on the legislation. The Senate fell 14 votes short of the 60 necessary to begin debate on a vote of 46-to-48.

The Women’s Health Protection Act, which was introduced in 2013, would enshrine the right to abortion in federal law, while blocking many of the abortion restrictions that have passed in several states. The House passed the bill last September, largely along party lines.

The bill would eliminate a list of what proponents describe as “medically unnecessary” antiabortion restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, antiabortion counseling, telemedicine bans and various regulations on the layout, structure and staffing policies at abortion clinics, which have forced many clinics to shutter.

Some Republican lawmakers who support abortion rights have called the bill “extreme,” arguing that the legislation goes “way beyond” the precedents established in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Ahead of the vote Monday, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) proposed an amendment that would codify Roe and Casey into law, without additional conditions and language from the Women’s Health Protection Act that the two senators find problematic.

“I have long supported a woman’s right to choose, but my position is not without limits, and this partisan Women’s Health Protection Act simply goes too far,” Murkowski wrote in a statement. “It would broadly supersede state laws and infringe on Americans’ religious freedoms.”

The Women’s Health Protection Act has been reintroduced in Congress four times since 2013 — but it wasn’t until Texas implemented its restrictive abortion ban in September that the bill received a vote in either chamber. The Texas law essentially bans abortion after six weeks.

With strong support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who decried what she called the Supreme Court’s “flagrantly unconstitutional” decision to let the Texas law stand, the bill passed in the House less than a month after the Texas ban took effect, with support from all but one Democrat.

“Across the country, it’s a dark, dark time for women’s reproductive rights,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday in remarks on the Senate floor, adding, “it looks like the Supreme Court is close to drastically restricting this right in the coming months.”

The measure, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), was co-sponsored by all but two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, who are both opposed to abortion.

“This vote will be a rallying cry in November,” said Blumenthal at a news conference before the vote. “This vote is going to awaken a lot of people, men and women, who grew up taking reproductive rights for granted.”

Casey voted to allow the start of debate on the bill, calling out Republicans for what he described as their “clear and unrelenting use of this issue as a political weapon.” He did not signal how he would vote on the measure itself if given the opportunity.

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At a news conference before the vote, Republicans warned about the dangers of the measure.

“This is by far the most extreme pro-abortion bill that has ever been put in front of Congress. Ever,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a physician, claimed that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if half of medical and nursing students left the field if the bill passed.

Many of the Democratic senators considered vulnerable in November have been vocal in their support of the measure. Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire has tweeted about the bill multiple times, saying she is “proud” to co-sponsor such a “critical” piece of legislation.

Across the country, approximately 60 percent of people think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a number that has stayed roughly the same for three decades.

Ahead of the Supreme Court decision, expected this summer, lawmakers have been racing to pass antiabortion bills in Republican-led states across the country. At least 11 states have proposed abortion bans modeled after the Texas law that banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, while empowering private citizens to enforce the law through civil litigation. Others are mimicking the Mississippi law currently before the Supreme Court, which bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Republican-led states rush to pass antiabortion bills before Supreme Court rules on Roe

Democrats in Washington are energized to do all they can to protect abortion rights, said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who has been an outspoken advocate of the Women’s Health Protection Act and shared her own abortion story in the New York Times in 2019. But if the bill fails to pass the Senate, she said, there’s not much more the federal government can do.

“I think it’s going to unfortunately rest with states and providers and communities,” Jayapal said. “I fear that without legislative action we are not going to be able to address the desperate needs of women to be able to make choices about their own bodies.”

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.