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Biden kicks off Democrats’ final sprint focusing on one theme: Abortion

In a major speech three weeks before the midterms, Biden makes it clear that abortion rights is the core Democratic message

On Oct. 18, President Biden said that if Democrats win the midterm elections, the first bill he will send to the next Congress would be to codify Roe v. Wade. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden vowed Tuesday to make codifying Roe v. Wade his first legislative priority if Democrats control Congress after the November elections, tying the outcome of the midterms more directly to enshrining abortion rights than he has previously and raising the stakes for a tumultuous election where his party faces strong head winds.

During a speech at the Howard Theatre in D.C., Biden said he would send a bill codifying abortion protections to Congress and sign it before Jan. 22, the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion. But he also sought to tap into the outrage that spilled onto the streets after the court’s June 24 ruling that overturned Roe.

“I’m asking the American people to remember how you felt the day the extreme Dobbs decision came down and Roe was struck down after all those years,” Biden said. “I want you to remember that the final say does not rest with the court now. It does not rest with the extreme Republicans in Congress. It rests with you. And if you do your part, Democratic leaders in Congress will do their part. And I’ll do my part.”

The major speech three weeks before the midterm elections was in part to reignite Democratic fury over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, an outcome that incensed liberals and many centrists this summer. He made it clear that protecting access to abortion was his party’s main message this election season, even as its political impact has been blunted in recent months as voters fret over economic issues such as inflation.

Biden’s speech solidified a dynamic for the final three weeks of a campaign that finds Republicans stressing issues such as crime, immigration and inflation to argue that the country has been engulfed in chaos under the Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats have been emphasizing Republican opposition to abortion rights and other issues to suggest that the GOP has become a party of extremists.

Since most legislation in the Senate requires 60 votes to advance, the Democrats would need to pick up several seats to codify abortion protections. The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Harris casting tiebreaking votes. Democrats also have a small edge in the House, but most strategists on both sides expect Republicans to take control of that chamber on Nov. 8.

Only a handful of Republicans would be expected to vote for a bill declaring abortion rights the law of the land. “Right now we’re short a handful of votes,” Biden said.

With the midterms looming, many Democrats have made abortion a central campaign issue, saying Republicans in power would enact a nationwide ban, and that other rights would be at risk if emboldened conservatives control Congress. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has introduced a bill that would make abortion illegal throughout the United States after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“They’re talking about the right to contraception and the right to marry who you love,” Biden said. “Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the House, has said if they take over, ‘Our work is far from done.’ He wants the House to pass a law that would ban abortion nationwide.”

Fury over the Supreme Court’s decision in June sparked protests outside the court and across the country and has led to a jump in female voter registration, which most analysts believe benefits Democrats. Two months after the court’s ruling, voters in Kansas widely rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have allowed new restrictions on abortion, bolstering Democrats’ hopes that outrage over the issue could help them turn back what earlier seemed like a likely Republican triumph in the midterms.

Since the Dobbs decision, Democrats have filled the airwaves with television commercials on abortion and taken out full-page newspaper ads in Senate and House battlegrounds. In Michigan, Democrats have successfully put on November’s ballot a measure that would enshrine abortion access in the state constitution. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, himself up for reelection, called legislators into a special session to get rid of the state’s abortion ban, though Republicans quickly scuttled that plan.

Biden and other Democrats have seized on Graham’s abortion-ban legislation, saying it is an example of Republicans adopting extreme stances. Graham’s move appeared to contradict the position of other Republican lawmakers, who have long said abortion is an issue that should be decided by the states.

Republicans, meanwhile, have attempted to center the campaign on the economy and crime in the final weeks of the midterms, hoping to make gains with late-deciding voters. In polls, economic issues such as inflation and jobs, to register as the largest concerns for voters — and a drag on Democrats running for office.

An Economist/YouGov poll released last week found that 43 percent of Americans said abortion is “very important” to them, down from 48 percent in the previous two weeks. The same poll found 65 percent saying jobs and the economy were very important; that was 67 percent last week and 68 percent the week before that.

Separately a New York Times/Siena College poll asked likely voters what was the most important problem facing the country in an open-ended question and 5 percent volunteered abortion. That was less than the 44 percent who said either the economy or inflation was the most important issue facing the country, up from 36 percent in July .

Democrats have sought to address economic issues by pointing to their passage of legislation to cut prescription drug costs, Biden’s move to forgive student-loan debt and White House actions to cut gas prices. But Democratic leaders concede privately that if the conversation is about the economy, they are at a disadvantage, while if it turns to abortion rights, they have the edge.

In Tuesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the attacks on abortion access, including far-reaching bans enacted by several GOP-led states, resonate powerfully with a large number of Americans.

“It is very clear that the majority of Americans support Roe,” Jean-Pierre said. “A majority of Americans disagree with the decision that the Supreme Court made just a few weeks ago. And you see that in polling after polling after polling. The majority of Americans have been very clear on where they stand on this.”

She declined to elaborate on how many additional Senate votes Biden believes Democrats need to make meaningful change. Biden has said he supports ending or amending the 60-vote filibuster threshold to enshrine abortion rights, but Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) have said they oppose overturning the filibuster. Biden would need at least two more votes to counter their opposition and scuttle the parliamentary rule.

It is less clear what additional steps Biden will take to protect abortion rights if the Democrats cannot both hold the House and add a couple seats in the Senate, an outcome that few in either party expect.

Biden has already signed an executive order allowing people to cross state lines to get an abortion, and he has sought to protect access to medication abortions that can be prescribed via a telehealth appointment and shipped through the mail. But the White House has ruled out other ideas that some activists are demanding, such as using federal lands for abortions, saying they are impractical or would invite legal challenges.

One potentially complicating factor is that Biden, a lifelong practicing Catholic, has struggled with the abortion issue and personally opposed abortion rights at times. He has spoken throughout his career of his discomfort with abortion, with the result that he has sometimes been out of step with his party.

“I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far,” Biden, then a new senator, said in 1974 after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Biden drew fierce criticism within the party for his support of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions. He changed his stance on the issue after sustained pressure from Democrats.

And when the court issued the Dobbs decision last summer, Biden’s initial response was criticized inside and outside the White House by Democrats who felt he failed to speak with enough passion or force to meet the moment for millions of women who had lost what they considered a fundamental right. Abortion rights advocates also said the Biden administration was slow to respond and should have been better prepared, given that a draft opinion had leaked weeks before.

Inside Biden's struggle to respond to Dobbs

Biden is the second Catholic president in U.S. history after John F. Kennedy, and Democrats are looking to him to be the leading champion of abortion rights as it faces its greatest challenge since Roe. But even as Democratic candidates, particularly those in blue states such as California and Oregon, center abortion in their campaigns, Biden has rarely emphasized the issue.

His speech Tuesday came after a four-day, three-state West Coast swing last week during which he uttered the word “abortion” twice. Biden did speak of the importance of electing Democrats to protect a women’s right to choose, but the issue of abortion was far from the focus of the trip or any of the individual events.

His two mentions of the word abortion happened during fundraisers for Democratic candidates — one for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Los Angeles on Thursday and one for Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee for Oregon governor, on Saturday.

John Wagner and Scott Clement contributed to this report.