The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberals aim to channel anger over Roe toward GOP

Some Democrats say party leaders are not fighting hard enough for abortion rights and other priorities. Top Democrats are trying to ensure that frustration is aimed at Republicans.

Abortion rights and antiabortion advocates outside the Supreme Court on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Vice President Harris declared this week that “it has never been more clear which party wants to expand our rights and which party wants to restrict them.” House Democrats’ campaign committee said that “access to abortion is on the line this November.”

And Democrats have now teed up a Senate vote next week to codify Roe v. Wade — a vote they expect to lose, but one that will highlight partisan divisions by falling almost entirely along party lines.

In the aftermath of the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe, Democrats are working hard to underline for voters which party is dismantling abortion protections and which one is defending them, hoping Republicans pay a price at the polls.

“All of America will be watching,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in announcing the Senate vote. “Republicans will not be able to hide from the American people, and cannot hide from their role in bringing Roe to an end.”

But the Democrats’ message also in a sense reflects how powerless they have been in Washington, even when they control the levers of power. They have failed to codify Roe, failed to prevent a conservative judiciary and failed to change the filibuster to enact their agenda.

And that’s in the opinion of some Democrats.

“The United States Senate is not responding to what Americans want right now,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said. “And that should piss them off.”

It’s not just the expected demise of Roe, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed abortion rights. A sweeping Democratic package that incorporated far-reaching climate rules steadily shrank until Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) effectively killed it in December. Efforts to expand voting access were blocked not just by Republicans, but by two moderate Democratic senators who declined to revise Senate rules that require 60 votes for most legislation to advance.

A bipartisan push to rein in policing practices collapsed. The Democratic-controlled Senate never even voted on restricting gun measures in the aftermath of several mass shootings.

President Biden has repeatedly said the fault lies with the GOP, since 48 out of 50 Senate Democrats generally support his plans while Republicans block them with near unanimity. But some rank-and-file activists blame Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for consistently undermining the Democrats’ agenda, and in some case Schumer for not finding a way to overcome their resistance.

A decision to overturn Roe v. Wade might upend the midterms

Cathy Sigmon, 72, a retired and late-in-life-turned activist with the Arizona chapter of Indivisible, a liberal activist group, says Democrats sometimes do not appear to be fighting that hard. “The perception is that they just stopped trying, even if that is not the case,” Sigmon said. “It is extremely frustrating for me, and I feel voters would reward Democrats if they see them fighting hard — I mean, really hard.”

On abortion, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) captured some of that anger in his response to the pending Supreme Court decision on abortion this week when he asked in apparent disgust, “Where the hell’s my party?”

He added, “Where’s the Democratic Party? Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely? Why aren’t we calling this out?” Republicans are winning, Newsom said: “This is a coordinated, concerted effort. And yes, they’re winning. They are. They have been. Let’s acknowledge that. We need to stand up. Where’s the counteroffensive?”

When the Senate takes up the legislation codifying Roe next week, few expect an outcome much different from a similar vote in February, when Democrats could not muster a simple majority due to opposition from Manchin, who does not support abortion rights. Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), two Republican senators who back abortion rights, also voted against the Democrats’ bill.

Collins said this week that she again would oppose the measure because it does not sufficiently protect health providers that object to abortion, such as Catholic hospitals. Democrats dispute that premise, but even if both Republican women were on board, it would still fall far short of the 60-vote threshold.

Especially frustrating to liberals is a statement from Sinema, who criticized the draft Supreme Court opinion while reiterating she would not support revising the filibuster to legislate abortion rights. “Protections in the Senate safeguarding against the erosion of women’s access to health care have been used half-a-dozen times in the past ten years, and are more important now than ever,” she said.

“We could protect Roe tomorrow, but Sinema refuses to act on the filibuster. Until that changes she can take a seat talking about ‘women’s access to health care,’” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted. “Hold everyone contributing to this disaster accountable, GOP & Dem obstructionists included. She should be primaried.”

How Kyrsten Sinema defended the filibuster — and bipartisanship

Manchin’s West Virginia has become deeply Republican, while Sinema represents the swing state of Arizona. Both have said they are voting their conscience and representing their constituents, and Manchin has said that if liberals are disappointed, the solution is to elect more liberals.

It’s far from the first time liberals’ anger has been kindled against the two Democratic centrists. Strategists in both parties expect the Democrats to lose one or both chambers of Congress in November’s election, and the window for the party to enact its agenda may be rapidly closing.

“A lot of the frustration is laid at Manchin and Sinema, and for good reason,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the liberal group UltraViolet, which focuses on issues of gender inclusivity.

Some Democrats worry that if party members spend too much time sniping at each other, they will let Republicans off the hook. Democratic organizers in key battleground states are trying to look past the intraparty angst and avoid the circular firing squad that dominated much of the headlines last year as Democrats struggled to unite behind high-profile legislation.

Vicki Miller, the group leader of Indivisible Philadelphia, said her organizers face two types of voters. One closely follows the daily political news, particularly the ups and downs of Biden’s domestic agenda, and “they know what we don’t have that we were hoping we would have.”

She added, “They know all about Joe Manchin. They know all about Kyrsten Sinema. They know the limits of Democrats in the Senate.”

But they are a small minority of voters, she said, and about 95 percent of the people that Miller’s group canvasses are less tuned in to political news and are not aware of what has gotten done in Washington.

“They don’t even remember the $1,400 checks,” said Miller, referring to the stimulus payments in the Biden’s sweeping coronavirus relief package last year. “That’s our mission, to remind them and to inform them. The two massive pieces of legislation that were passed provide a ton of benefits, and people are not seeing that.”

The White House, too, has been working to better promote the accomplishments of the Biden presidency, including the relief package and the bipartisan infrastructure law. Biden and Harris will appear together at an event next week to promote the broadband provisions in the infrastructure package.

Six months before crucial midterms, Biden faces many challenges

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden is “incredibly proud” of the achievements of his first 15 months, citing the roughly 80 bipartisan bills that she said he has signed into law.

“He was in the Senate for 36 years. He knows and understands it sometimes take more time than you would like to get … your agenda forward,” Psaki said. “He also understands that with such a slim majority in the Senate, it requires either having every single Democrat prepared to move forward on, say, the reconciliation package — which we’re still working to move forward — or requires working in a bipartisan way.”

Democrats on the ground say they are working overtime to outline what is at stake this November for voters, despite lack of progress on several key issues in Washington.

After leak of draft abortion decision, advocates react with emotion

“Yes, the disappointment is real,” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a liberal group. “But we are looking for a fight. We are always connecting the act of voting to the change that people tell us they want to see for themselves, for their families and their communities.”

That leaves Democratic leaders urgently trying to persuade their voters that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who need to be held accountable. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said it is a misperception that Democrats have a functional majority in the Senate when they control only 50 votes and need Harris to break ties.

“It takes 10 Republicans to be able to work together to get something done, but there’s not a one there, and they are surely never 10,” Luján said. “I don’t think the attention should be taken off of those that are causing obstruction, especially those Republican members that were once on board with some of these policies.”