Biden starts the Dems’ final sprint with a focus on one theme: abortion


President Biden promised on Tuesday to codify Roe v. Wade his first legislative priority if Democrats control Congress after the November elections, ties the outcome of the midterms more directly to securing abortion rights than he has in the past, raising the stakes for a tumultuous election in which his party faces strong headwinds.

Speaking at the Howard Theater in DC, Biden said he would send a bill codifying abortion protections to Congress and sign it by Jan. 22, the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion. But he also tried to capitalize on the outrage that spilled onto the streets after the court’s June 24 ruling that overturned Roe.

“I ask the American people to remember how extremely you felt that day Dobbs the decision fell and Roe was struck down after all these years,” Biden said. “I want you to remember that the final word is not with the court now. It does not rest on the extreme Republicans in Congress. It rests on you. And if you do your part, Democratic leaders in Congress will do their part. And I will do my part.”

The big speech three weeks before the midterm elections was in part to rekindle Democratic fury over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, a result 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, although its political impact has dulled in recent months as voters worry about economic issues like inflation.

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

Since most legislation in the Senate requires 60 votes to move forward, Democrats would need to pick up more seats to codify abortion protections. The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Democrats also hold a small lead 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 a handful of votes short,” Biden said.

As the midterms approach, many Democrats have made abortion a central campaign issue, saying Republicans in power would pass a nationwide ban and other rights would be at risk if stalwart conservatives control Congress. Late. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) has introduced a bill that would make abortion illegal throughout the United States after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“They talk about the right to birth control and the right to marry the one you love,” Biden said. “Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the House, has said that 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 ruling in June sparked protests outside the court and across the country and has led to a jump in female voter registration that most analysts say benefits Democrats. Two months after the court’s ruling, Kansas voters widely rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have allowed new restrictions on abortion, boosting Democrats’ hopes that outrage over the issue could help them reverse what previously looked like a likely Republican triumph in the interim period. .

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

Biden and other Democrats have seized on Graham’s abortion ban legislation, saying it is an example of Republicans taking extreme positions. 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 tried to center the campaign on the economy and crime in the final weeks of the midterm elections, hoping to gain traction with late-deciding voters. In polls, economic issues such as inflation and jobs are registering as top 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 that 65 percent said jobs and the economy were very important; it 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 issue facing the country in an open-ended question, and 5 percent volunteered for abortion. That was down from 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 tried to address economic problems by pointing to their passage of legislation to reduce prescription drug costs, Biden’s move to forgive student loan debt and White House moves to lower gas prices. But Democratic leaders privately admit that if the conversation is about the economy, they are at a disadvantage, while if it is about abortion rights, they have the advantage.

In Tuesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the attacks on abortion access, including sweeping bans passed by several GOP-led states, are resonating strongly with a large number of Americans.

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

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

It’s less clear what further steps Biden will take to protect abortion rights if Democrats can’t both hold the House and add a few seats in the Senate, an outcome 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 through a telehealth appointment and sent by mail. But the White House has ruled out other ideas some activists are calling for, such as using federal lands for abortions, saying they are impractical or would invite legal challenges.

A potentially complicating factor is that Biden, a lifelong practicing Catholic, has struggled with the abortion issue and at times personally opposed abortion rights. He has been vocal throughout his career about 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 freshman senator, said in 1974 after the Supreme Court ruled. Roe v. Wade. “I don’t think a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

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

And when the court issued it Dobbs decision last summer, Biden’s initial response was criticized inside and outside the White House by Democrats who felt he did not 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 since a draft statement had been leaked weeks before.

Inside Biden’s Struggle to Respond to Dobbs

Biden is the second Catholic president in American history after John F. Kennedy, and Democrats expect him to be the leading champion of abortion rights as it faces its biggest challenge since Roe. But even as Democratic candidates, especially those in blue states like 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 talked about the importance of electing Democrats to protect women’s right to vote, 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 came at fundraisers for Democratic candidates — one for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Los Angeles on Thursday and one for Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate for Oregon governor, on Saturday.

John Wagner and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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