The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Roe overturned, Democrats present a patchwork of countermeasures

The ruling created a new rallying cry for Democrats, but also revealed some divergences in the party and unsettled questions about the path forward

President Biden holds his news conference at the NATO Summit on June 30, 2022 in Madrid. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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On Capitol Hill, House Democratic leaders are discussing ways to force Republicans into uncomfortable positions on abortion, plotting potential votes designed to expose GOP opposition to some popular protections and underscore their own commitment to them, according to aides with knowledge of the plans.

At the White House, President Biden first encouraged outraged Americans to express themselves at the ballot box and then, days later, shifted to a more aggressive posture, urging a change to the Senate filibuster to enable Democrats to codify abortion rights. Administration officials are also studying what more can be accomplished via executive action.

And across the country, liberal governors on the West Coast banded together to create a multistate haven aimed at protecting out-of-state abortion seekers from legal consequences, while TV ads about abortion aimed at helping Democratic candidates are hitting the airwaves in battleground states from New Hampshire to Florida.

“What’s most important is that we turn all of this anger and anxiety into action. And that means turning out the votes,” said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) in an interview with The Washington Post.

The flurry of responses from Democrats to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade amounts to a patchwork approach that will be tested in the months ahead in the next phase of the nationwide battle over abortion. The ruling created a new rallying cry for the party aligned with the abortion rights movement that had been bracing for a difficult election season and was struggling to generate excitement for political activism and policymaking. But it has also revealed some divergences in the path forward — at times prompting Democratic aides to flash frustration over the lack of cohesion.

Congress members react to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade on June 24, eliminating the constitutional protection for abortion. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Biden’s push for a filibuster change has not persuaded a pair of pivotal Senate Democrats to join his call, leaving that path closed unless they budge. And while the White House explores its options for acting through executive fiat, it is seeking to temper expectations about what is possible in the wake of the court’s decision, brushing aside some suggestions from activists, as officials note that completely filling the gap left open by the court’s ruling is impossible.

Even as House Democrats have been plotting possible votes to prove a point, inside a recent closed-door Senate Democratic caucus meeting, a group of women senators played down the prospect of “show votes,” according to three Democrats familiar with the meeting, which some in the Senate fear could open a path for centrist Republicans to break with their party. The Democrats spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

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The Democratic efforts come as antiabortion activists say they are not letting up in their political advocacy. “Our ground team is going door to door in battleground states, talking to millions of voters about Biden Democrats’ extremism and the need to elect pro-life champions to the House and Senate this year,” said Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser in a recent statement.

Some Democrats say their challenge will be keeping the political conversation focused on abortion in coming weeks in a way that resonates with voters. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to colleagues Monday noting that leadership had been discussing potential votes related to abortion since a draft opinion of the Supreme Court decision leaked earlier this year.

These include a measure to protect personal reproductive data stored in apps, to prevent the use of that information against women in states where abortion is not legal. Democrats also want to ensure women do not face criminal penalties for choosing to travel throughout the U.S. to obtain an abortion in a state where it is legal.

House leaders have asked committee chairs to flag legislation that they could consider voting on to hold Republicans accountable on numerous protections, according to two House Democratic aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline private deliberations.

A House GOP aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their member’s thinking, acknowledged that such votes could put them in a tough spot with their base.

Some senior Democratic aides in the Senate have voiced wariness of deploying a similar strategy in their chamber, worrying that holding such kinds of votes might allow Republican senators who voted to confirm Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe to claim they acted to uphold women’s reproductive rights.

Those dynamics arose in the Democratic caucus meeting where a group of women senators discussed strategy ahead of the court ruling — tamping down the possibility that there might be a string of “show votes” to demonstrate Republican opposition to abortion rights and potentially other freedoms.

Instead, the three Democrats familiar with the meeting said, a likelier strategy is to attempt over the summer to pass bills on the floor by unanimous consent — a maneuver that would publicly demonstrate GOP opposition to popular measures but would not require all senators to cast votes on them.

“My view of it is that the Republicans are already on the record when it comes to protecting this fundamental freedom of people to be able to decide for themselves about their own body,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) at a Washington Post Live event Monday. She added, “I don’t really think that any particular votes on the floor of the Senate are going to change that.”

Beyond Congress, Democrats also plan to draw attention to state-by-state developments, with several aides to campaign committees saying they expect the legal landscape to shift as the implications of the decision become clearer and as GOP-dominated state legislatures go into special sessions to change existing laws.

The regulatory terrain is in flux, with abortion rights advocates also waging a battle in courtrooms across the country, filing a volley of lawsuits fighting abortion bans and restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. The efforts have yielded mixed results in recent days, with a judge in Kentucky temporarily blocking a state abortion ban, while a Texas court blocked an order allowing abortions to resume there. In Wisconsin, the Democratic governor and state attorney general are pushing a lawsuit to block enforcement of a law from 1849 banning abortion.

The spotlight also moves to Democratic state executives such as Brown. Together with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, fellow Democrats, Brown acted swiftly to create a tri-state haven for abortion seekers, sending a message that those barred from the procedure in other states will be welcomed.

Brown nodded to the challenges the party faces on the federal level. “Reelecting Democratic governors is probably the most effective and, frankly, probably the only way to protect reproductive rights,” said the governor, who is term-limited.

Other Democrats have been eying state legislative races more closely as an avenue for enacting more abortion protections. “The Supreme Court made it super clear that the fight for abortion rights, probably the fight for any of our rights, is directly in the states,” said Heather Williams, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Williams said fundraising has spiked since the Supreme Court decision, but she remains worried that the GOP will still have fundraising edge this year.

To capture some of the new energy, a coalition of Democratic campaign committees recently launched a website to connect voters upset about the decision to state parties. Before the court’s ruling, the Democratic National Committee held briefings for leaders, surrogates and campaign staff and offered training and tool kits and guides for quickly organizing rallies and news conferences. A trio of abortion rights groups aligned with Democrats said in May they planned to spend $150 million on the midterm elections.

Some campaigns readied TV or digital ads on abortion weeks ago, with ads going up in the days after the decision in New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, according to the group AdImpact and several campaigns.

Democrats say they also plan to amplify Republican candidates that stoke controversy about abortion.

Democrats say they expect the issue to resonate in the suburbs, where many of the most competitive midterm battles will be fought.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has been conducting focus groups that have touched on the issue of abortion, said that voters were quick to connect the reversal of Roe with a broader threat to other established rights. She pointed to Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion, which spelled out a potential pathway for reconsidering access to contraception and the validity of same-sex marriages.

The five other conservative justices who joined in the decision sought to offer assurances that such other freedoms will not be targeted. But Thomas’s opinion, Lake said, is “an extremely valuable validator of what was already a very salient argument and a very powerful argument to young people in particular.”

Some Democrats said they believe that voters in New Hampshire and Nevada, where there are abortion protections in place and competitive Senate races are unfolding, could be especially swayed by the court decision to rally against Republican candidates. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) recently visited an abortion clinic and has been focusing on the issue in her reelection campaign.

Underscoring the significance of the decision on her race, Hassan’s campaign released an ad Thursday in which she speaks straight to the camera. “The Supreme Court has taken away a woman’s most fundamental freedom, control over her own body,” Hassan says in the spot.

At the White House, Biden delivered a recent speech largely focused on directing his Department of Health and Human Services to ensure medications including contraception and the abortion pill remain available and warning the administration will fight any efforts to restrict the right to travel for women seeking abortions.

“There is no magic bullet” to restoring abortion access, said Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra on Tuesday after an event billed as laying out the administration’s plans. “We’re not interested in going rogue and doing things just because we want to make sure what we tell Americans is accurate.”

On Thursday, Biden called for the change to the filibuster, following growing concerns in the party that more urgent steps are needed. But he has yet to convince Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to back down from their opposition to changing the filibuster.

The White House has also try to tamp down some novel ideas being debated in the party, including allowing abortions on federal land. Calling the idea “well intentioned,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House has assessed that it’s “dangerous,” potentially putting people who are not federal employees at risk of prosecution in states where abortion is illegal.

Given the policy limitations, White House officials are pointing back to the significance of the midterm elections.

“This has always been about taking away women’s rights, in every single state,” Jen Klein, the director of the Gender Policy Council, said in a statement. “So let’s be clear, this goes one of two ways: We either have a House and Senate that puts Roe into federal law, or a House and Senate that push ultra-MAGA policies that strip women of their rights in all 50 states. Congress will either protect women everywhere, or strip away their rights everywhere.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

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