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Democrats are fuming over their leaders' 'tepid' response to Roe v. Wade's demise

Nicole Gaudiano,Kimberly Leonard   

Democrats are fuming over their leaders' 'tepid' response to Roe v. Wade's demise
  • The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and some states have moved to ban abortion.
  • Democratic operatives were alarmed the White House didn't immediately present a plan for patients.

Democrats are furious with the White House and congressional leaders over what they consider an underwhelming response to the Supreme Court's reversal of federal protections for abortion.

While President Joe Biden urged voters to elect more Democrats supportive of abortion rights in November, operatives and grassroots activists want officials to take more action now to protect access to care.

They say planning should have started much earlier for this outcome, which has been expected since conservatives gained a 6-3 majority in the Supreme Court in October 2020. The decision became more definitive in early May when POLITICO published a leaked draft of the opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed a national right to abortion.

"There's a fundamental failure of Democratic leadership at this moment, not rising to the moment and taking bold moves that the public is clamoring for," said Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "We had many weeks since the leak to prepare for this Roe decision, and the response has been tepid at best."

Democratic strategist Max Burns said congressional Democrats should have used the time to plan a full package of abortion rights protections they could roll out the day after the decision.

"I've been honestly stunned that very few of those conversations seemed to have happened, and we've not seen any major initiatives or White House policies rolled out," he told Insider. "It really does feel like this fell off focus due to inflation/economy, because this does not feel like a party with a clear abortion rights plan."

Congress limited by what it can do

In Congress, Democrats have been stymied by an evenly divided Senate and filibuster rules requiring 60 votes to pass major legislation. The Women's Health Protection Act, which would make abortion legal in every state and invalidate most restrictions, failed 49-51 in May.

Biden on Thursday called on the Senate to suspend its filibuster rules to codify abortion rights. But there isn't enough support among Democratic ranks to do this.

Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine are working on a bipartisan bill. But one senior Democratic Senate aide told Insider that Democratic women senators and abortion rights groups say privately that they don't see the legislation going anywhere because nine Republicans would need to get onboard, "which everyone knows will never happen right now."

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing July 13 on the impact of the Supreme Court's decision.

Women who have had abortions and who have testified at congressional hearings want to see something come of it, said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, which elevates the voices of those who've had abortions.

"Not being the Party of Assholes isn't enough," Bracey Sherman said. "We need Senate Democrats to get their act together, abolish the filibuster, pass the Women's Health Protection Act, and pass the EACH Act to ensure everyone has access to abortion at any time, for any reason, anywhere." The EACH Act legislation would allow the federal government to pay for abortions, particularly for low-income people.

Since the Women's Health Protection Act failed, Senate Democrats have been ramping up pressure on Biden to do more. Senate Help Committee Chair Patty Murray of Washington and more than 20 other colleagues urged the president in a June 8 letter to issue an executive order to protect abortion rights, including increasing access to medication abortion, providing resources for those seeking abortions in other states, and using federal property and resources to increase abortion access.

After the court's decision, more than 30 senators joined Murray in another letter to Biden, urging him to take every step possible to protect abortion access. "You have the power to fight back and lead a national response to this devastating decision," they wrote.

A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before becoming president Biden had a spotty record on abortion rights. Earlier this week, many Democratic operatives seethed when they learned Biden would be nominating an anti-abortion lawyer to a lifetime federal judiciary appointment in Kentucky.

The White House hasn't embraced the idea of building abortion clinics on federal lands.

On Tuesday Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra proposed some other actions the administration might take, such as increasing access to medication abortions, but stressed that before presenting specific policies officials wanted to ensure they were on firm legal footing.

But many Democrats want a firmer stance.

"There is a fair amount of anger right now," a Democratic strategist who has also worked in reproductive advocacy told Insider.

"They are shooting down so many ideas without providing their own," the strategist added. "And that's where people are wondering: If you weren't going to come up with solutions, why did you run for president?"

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee welcomed Biden's comments on the filibuster carveout for abortion rights, but Green said the president isn't doing enough. He suggested Biden could bring pro-abortion-rights Republicans, Collins and Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to Camp David or the White House and pressure them to support a filibuster carveout for abortion rights legislation.

"If he has them over to the White House…and then they rebuffed his offer publicly, well, at least he tried," Green said. "But so far, it just feels like a fundraising tactic."

The House will hold votes on abortion rights

In response to the Roe decision, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that the chamber would re-consider the Women's Health Protection Act.

The House will also consider legislation to shield women from criminal prosecution if they travel out of state to get an abortion, and a bill that will protect health data on apps, she said.

A senior Democratic aide said the votes would help to underscore "new elements of Republicans' extreme ambitions."

There appears to be no immediate plans to have Republicans vote on bills that would be even more broadly popular and cast them as deeply out-of-step with a vast majority of the public, such as a vote to create a federal right to abortion in the first trimester — when 90% of abortions occur.

Green said it would be "political malpractice" for Democrats not to hold votes on legislation reinforcing that birth control should remain legal and codifying abortion rights in the cases of rape or incest. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee also wants Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to say the filibuster should be eliminated "once and for all" if more Democrats are elected to Congress in November.

A senior House Democratic aide told Insider that votes along the lines of what Green raised hadn't been ruled out. Pelosi, in her letter to the US House, said legislation would be introduced to "codify freedoms which Americans currently enjoy" and hinted at possibilities on birth control, in-vitro fertilization, and same-sex marriage.

"The public is going to hold Republicans responsible for every news alert about a trigger law taking effect, every viral story of rape victims being denied the morning-after-pill, or women almost bleeding out during a miscarriage, every state legislator's threat to criminalize helping women travel or providing information about abortion resources," the aide said.

One senior Democratic Senate aide familiar with the caucus' talks said Democrats were exploring numerous options including ensuring women could travel to other states and pressing the Biden administration to use military bases. They want Republicans "who created this mess to own it," the person said.

But beyond the political impact is knowing the human impact the Roe decision will have, particularly on low-income people who "already don't have power in their own lives," said Connor Lounsbury, deputy campaign manager for Lucas Kunce.

Kunce, a veteran and antitrust advocate, is running for US Senate in Missouri where abortion is now illegal even in cases of rape and incest.

"People deserve something more as a response from at the very least a Democratic administration," Lounsbury said. "This is why people don't trust Washington: It's not just the other side. It's the moments you feel let down by your own team. That's what felt so devastating about the Roe decision followed by, 'It's on you now to vote.' That hurt."


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