The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House passes protection for birth-control access; Senate support is unclear

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addresses reporters at her weekly news conference at the Capitol on July 21. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The House passed legislation largely along party lines Thursday that would federally protect an individual’s access to contraception and ensure health-care providers are not penalized for prescribing it, a response to the Supreme Court decision last month that reversed federal protections for abortion access.

Eight Republicans voted with all Democrats — far fewer than the 47 Republicans who earlier this week joined Democrats in voting to federally protect same-sex and interracial marriage. The final vote on Thursday was 228 to 195.

House Democrats this week have prioritized passing legislation that would federalize protections many Americans consider settled law, arguing that the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade signals that other personal freedoms are under attack by Republicans. The votes also serve as a final argument ahead of the midterms by Democrats, who are hoping to draw a sharp contrast with the GOP by painting the party as extreme on social issues that are broadly popular with voters.

The support for marriage equality by House Republicans on Tuesday shook the Senate into action, spurring Democratic leaders to shift their tone and announce that they will consider that bill on the Senate floor soon. But it’s unclear whether the Senate will also bring up the contraception legislation.

With Roe v. Wade overturned, the legality of abortion has been left to the states. Some worry that access to certain types of contraception could be next. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Contraception protection has already faced hurdles in the Senate. Hours after the House passed their legislation Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) tried to force passage of another bill that would provide billions of dollars in funding for clinics that provide family planning services, including contraception.

“It should not be controversial,” Murray said on the Senate floor.

Republicans objected. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who has her own bill to expand access to over the counter birth control, called the Democratic legislation a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” saying the funding would help provide abortions since some family planning clinics often provide abortion services in states that still allow it. But federal Title X funds are prohibited from being used on abortion services for family planning. Murray, still standing at her desk on the Senate floor during Ernst’s objection, shook her head at the allegation.

Republicans across the Capitol also decried Democrats’ continued push to vote on what some Republicans consider to be unnecessary, preemptive protections.

“This is a made up issue for Pelosi,” Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.) said of the contraception bill. A moderate Republican, Bacon earlier this week voted in support of the same-sex marriage legislation. “She’s trying to generate an issue for November. I don’t know any Republican personally who wants to restrict contraception.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was equally incredulous, asking, “Are we going to go through and codify all the decisions of the Supreme Court? We have contraception. It’s not an issue in the country, they’re not going to change the law on contraception. I find it kind of strange.”

Democrats, however, believe such consideration is necessary after Justice Clarence Thomas openly questioned whether the court “should reconsider” rulings that guaranteed access to birth control and same-sex couples’ right to marriage — two issues many Americans have viewed as settled law.

“As a reminder, the year is 2022, not 1922, not 1822,” Assistant Speaker Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) argued on the House floor. “It’s well established that birth control is central to a person’s ability to plan their future.”

House Democrats have been trying to put Republicans on-the-record on such social issues in recent days, also voting last week on legislation that would protect women who seek an abortion out of state. There is also discussion among House leaders of clinching the momentum and voting on another proposal led by Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.) that would create a grant program to help low-income women who cannot afford traveling out of state to obtain an abortion.

House Republicans tried to flip the script on Democrats Thursday, forcing a vote recalling the legislation back to committees and instead voting on a bill led by Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) that would allow people 18 and older access to Food and Drug Administration-approved birth control without a prescription.

All Democrats voted against the Republican countermeasure, arguing it purposely prohibited emergency contraception drugs, like Plan B, from being accessed in a similar manner. Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) personally spoke on the floor about her use of Plan B and how it’s not an overreaction to assume Republicans would roll back such rights.

“I’m probably the first person ever to speak about using ‘Plan B’ on the House floor and I know I’m the first person in at least 35 years to talk about my period here. But you know what, we should be talking about it,” she said.

Fifteen Republicans were also against the amendment, many of whom belong to the conservative House Freedom Caucus and objected to the use of contraception or the federal government dictating accessibility.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who voted to support for federally protecting contraception access, criticized her party for exempting emergency contraceptives drugs because they are meant to be taken “before a fetus is developed or there is a heartbeat.” A victim of rape, Mace argued those who find themselves in a similar situation “should have access to emergency contraception.”

“People fashion arguments to suit their votes instead of looking at the bill itself,” Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) said. “To me it’s the right vote for me and especially given the Supreme Court decision, we got to make sure contraception is ubiquitous.”

Republicans who voted with Democrats Thursday included Mace, retiring Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), and Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.).

Republican Reps. Bob Gibbs (Ohio) and Mike Kelly (Pa.) voted present — neither for or against the legislation.

Republicans cited several reasons for opposing the Democrats’ bill, the most common being that the majority party has prioritized voting on legislation that has skipped over the committee debate process. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) echoed the argument that Democrats are creating “an imagined emergency,” spreading fear that the right to contraception is unsafe for the sake of “political points.”

But some showed openness to finding a solution. Both Hinson and Rep. Stephanie I. Bice (R-Okla.) expressed outrage that Democrats were trying to frame Republican women as opponents to contraception usage, urging Democrats to protect such drugs but exclude emergency contraceptives and abortion pills.

“We should reject this bill and instead, bring up legislation that would protect access to contraception in a way that respects the pro-life values of millions of Americans,” Bice said.

Republican senators included a similar plea, urging Democrats to take a breath.

“Let’s just slow down while we figure this out,” Ernst said.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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