Sep 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP abortion bill sends Republicans into containment mode

Lindsey Graham

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Eight weeks out from the midterms, some Republicans in Congress are scrambling to isolate legislation introduced by members of their own party to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks.

Why it matters: The dynamic highlights how dramatically Republicans' posture on abortion has shifted since the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade spurred a surge of Democratic enthusiasm on the campaign trail.

Driving the news: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) dredged up the abortion conversation for Republicans on Tuesday by introducing the 15-week ban, despite saying as recently as last month that the issue should be left to the states.

  • A group of 88 House members, led by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and other co-chairs of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, introduced a companion bill.

The big picture: Politically, the bill is designed to cement a post-Dobbs strategy in which Republicans cast themselves as closer to the mainstream on abortion than congressional Democrats, who largely don't support any restrictions.

  • Pointing to Senate Democrats' own failed attempt to codify abortion rights into federal law, Graham said at a press conference: "I thought it would be nice to introduce a bill to define who we are."
  • Democrats appeared thrilled to run with that same message, with campaigns and lawmakers immediately blasting out tweets and fundraising emails tying Republicans to Graham's support for a national ban.
  • "It clarifies what the choice is, exactly along the lines we’ve been saying, which is that if they get back in power, Republicans will ban abortion in all 50 states," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Context: 57% of voters said they oppose a 15-week ban in a Wall Street Journal poll this month, up from 43% in April — before the leaked Dobbs decision.

What they're saying: Rather than embrace the bill, Republican leaders have distanced themselves from Graham's effort and cast it as a distraction.

  • "I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at a GOP leadership press conference.
  • Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell's deputy, noted Graham's bill doesn't mesh well with the GOP's midterm message: "I think that most of our members are going to be out talking about the economy and inflation ... and the border and crime, all the issues that we think the American people are talking about."
  • Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), another member of leadership, told reporters, "We really should let the states take that initial role."

Some House GOP lawmakers are no less hostile to their chamber’s version of the bill.

  • Asked if Republicans want to be talking about abortion with the midterms two months away, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told Axios, “Nope! I think I’d be talking about inflation."
  • "People don’t want to talk about abortion right now … and I’m happy to have the states be the lead on this for a while,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), one of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents — though he added that he doesn’t think 15 weeks is "bad politics," calling it a "compromise."

By the numbers: The number of members signing onto the latest iterations of the legislation, versus pre-Dobbs bills, offers a revealing look at how Republican enthusiasm for federal abortion restrictions has dried up.

  • A 20-week ban introduced by Smith last April — with the same premise of banning abortions when a fetus becomes "pain-capable" — had more than twice as many co-sponsors as his 15-week bill.
  • Graham's previous 20-week companion bill had 45 co-sponsors, nearly the entire Senate Republican Conference.
  • Graham’s spokesperson Kevin Bishop said he was still working on gathering co-sponsors for his 15-week bill as of Tuesday, telling Axios: "The legislation was not circulated in the Senate before today."

What we’re watching: While some Republican senators have expressed support for the bill and are likely to sign on, it’s expected to lack key support from even staunch conservatives.

  • Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) told Axios he doesn’t plan to co-sponsor the bill, saying of Graham: "I don’t know what he’s doing because, you know, we kicked it back to the states."
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