Democrats are grappling with what may be the most immediate question of post-Roe politics: Is it even worth having more votes on abortion rights that aren’t going anywhere?
Over the past year-plus, Congress has sent several high-profile House-passed bills straight into a Senate GOP filibuster, from a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission to elections reform. Democrats aren’t too eager to replicate that stalemate on abortion rights, aware that they can’t pass much with their paltry majorities in Congress — but that doesn’t mean they won’t vote on abortion at all.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are under intense pressure to use some of their legislative leverage on abortion this year before a November election where the GOP is set to romp. Pelosi telegraphed her caucus’ first steps on Monday, outlining a list of bills the House could take up in the coming weeks despite having no path to passage in the upper chamber.
An approach that might go further is pushing abortion protections in Congress’ must-pass bills this year, including the annual defense policy and government funding packages. Yet it’s not clear how far the party will — or can — go on that strategy, given that any major moves would still run into a GOP roadblock. And a contingent on the left is mostly ready to dispense with show votes, homing in on the midterms.
“We’ve already voted on the codification bill,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “And we don’t have the votes. That’s why I’m so focused on November. If we pick up two more senators, we can ditch the filibuster and make Roe the law of the land.”
The outcome she outlined requires keeping the House in Democratic hands next year, however, and that’s a long shot at best. Congressional Democrats, aware of the tough task ahead of them, are trying to turn the demise of Roe v. Wade into a base-motivating issue for the fall and attempting to nudge the Biden administration for new federal action to improve abortion access.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D-Wash.), whose schedule this week is packed with public events, said her main strategy for protecting abortion rights post-decision is to “use the bully pulpit that I have.”
“That may be the most important thing we can do right now … to not let this go away, to not let this be a blip,” Jayapal said. One of her messages to activists back home is the power of protest — recalling how women in Iceland went on strike to flex their political muscles four decades ago.
“It’s going to take the ballot box to change the Senate,” she added.
On the Hill, Democratic leaders have yet to formally announce a legislative strategy after the Supreme Court overturned a nationwide right to abortion last week. One senior aide said the party is also looking at “non-legislative options to help women impacted by the SCOTUS decision.”
Here are the potential steps Democrats could take to force a Roe debate this year, even as they lack the votes to pass anything right now:
The Senate held a big one of these last month on legislation that would codify Roe while banning states from enacting many types of abortion restrictions. Pelosi suggested in her Monday letter that the House could bring that bill up again, but Senate Democratic aides are privately skeptical about Schumer holding another vote on legislation that’s already failed twice this year.
The entire GOP conference, as well as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), opposes that codification-and-access bill.
Democrats and outside groups see an advantage to holding those kinds of messaging votes and argue that doing so will put Republicans in both chambers on the record — painting a clear contrast ahead of the November midterms. But there’s tangible risk in further highlighting the current limits Democrats face legislatively, and it’s not clear how much the broader public is paying attention to the House or Senate floor.