September 21, 2015
On Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will follow through on one of the biggest promises he made during his 2014 reelection campaign. Despite putting it off for months, the Senate will finally have a chance to vote on a 20-week post-fertilization (22-week gestation) blanket abortion ban—a ban that will provide no options for a pregnant person who discovers she is carrying a fetus with a genetic anomaly, a ban that will force those impregnated by sexual assault to receive additional counseling about her abortion decision and then wait an additional 48 hours for the procedure if she still wishes to continue, a bill that, as one anti-abortion advocate put it, will make it so difficult for a provider to terminate a pregnancy at that point without risking potential lawsuits or jail time that the doctors will likely just not perform them at all.
And frighteningly, it may be just two votes from passing.
Sure, everyone has been crunching the numbers and stating that the “procedural” vote—meaning that it needs 60 votes in order to successfully move ahead and get a simple majority vote to pass—is doomed to fail. With the GOP holding just 54 seats in the Senate and Democrats holding 44 plus two Independent senators who caucus on their side, reaching 60 should be an impossibility.
“Should be” is good. But I’m still bracing myself, just in case. I’ve seen a lot of votes happen in the Senate that still manage to surprise me. When the Senate did a similar procedural vote to defund Planned Parenthood in early August, we saw a 53 to 46 vote in favor of defunding, which included a few senators that should have been more worried about offending the vast majority of their constituencies that believe that the reproductive health-care provider should be receiving taxpayer dollars.
As we head into the 20-week vote, we can almost assume that every one of the 54 Republicans in the Senate will vote in favor of the ban, regardless of how minuscule and unaccommodating the exceptions are or that passing the bill will essentially force those pregnant with a nonviable fetus to continue the pregnancy and give birth anyway. When slightly more moderate Republican senators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins are still forced to toe the party line on something as publicly unpopular as defunding Planned Parenthood, it’s difficult to see her bucking her party on a more palatable 20-week ban. While Illinois Republican Mark Kirk did vote in opposition to the GOP line during the defunding debate, it’s a crapshoot if he will do it a second time, now that the call for a primary challenger is getting even louder.
If the GOP can guarantee 54 votes, they have another three probable yeas in Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, the three remaining members of the Pro-Life Democrats wing of the Democratic Party. While Casey did not vote with Republicans over blocking taxpayer funds from going to Planned Parenthood, the other two senators had no issue with breaking from the party and cozying up with their opposition.
Still, that only gets them to 57. Where would the last three come from? The Susan B. Anthony List thinks it knows one of them; North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp. The group spent “six figures” on an ad buy surrounding the 20-week abortion ban, part of which was spent targeting Heitkamp at home on the issue (the rest went to Donnelly, Casey, and Murkowski, the other soft spots).
As a focus for spending, Heitkamp makes quite a bit of sense. One of the more conservative states in the country, North Dakota passed myriad anti-abortion laws in the last few cycles, including its own 20-week ban, a ban on abortion when a heartbeat could be detected (four weeks post-fertilization, or sometimes even earlier), a de facto ban on medication abortion, and even an amendment to the state constitution that would have granted “personhood” rights at the moment an egg is fertilized. The amendment failed to gain majority support in a statewide voter referendum, but the anti-abortion political action group no doubt believes that it doesn’t mean the state’s voters wouldn’t back something far less extreme. Heitkamp, at this point, seems unmoved by their pressure.
“Senator Heitkamp believes reproductive decisions should be left to a woman, her family, and her doctor, and it isn’t up to the government to determine what that timeline should be," spokeswoman Abigail McDonough told The Hill. "She also supports the Hyde amendment and a state’s right to mandate parental consent for minors or restrict partial-birth abortions, except when medically necessary to protect the life of the woman."
If somehow SBA List did manage to move Heitkamp to a yes, 20-week-ban proponents should still be two votes shy. That’s good, but that’s a disturbingly small gap to be keeping an eye on. The bright side is that the list of remaining Democrats are likely solid enough that there shouldn’t be any additional defections to worry about. The less bright side is that it is even this close to begin with.
At least two Republican senators—Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte—will be in extremely tight races come 2015, and a vote in favor of a 20-week ban, especially if framed as forcing pregnant people to give birth against their wishes because of the tight restrictions, could be devastating in their purple, moderate states. Johnson will be seeking second term after being swept into office on a tea-party landslide, and his own state is in the midst of a battle over its own extreme 20-week ban. Ayotte also rode the tea-party wave into the Senate, but now is the sole elected woman in the upper levels of state politics who doesn’t support abortion rights. It’s an issue she is obviously starting to consider, as well, as she has started attacking her own side over their willingness to shut down the government if they don’t get their abortion restrictions passed.
In the end, whether the 20-week ban passes or not won’t be today’s big story. The big story, instead, will be just how very close the final vote is. Be it just a two vote difference or a larger one, the real story is that for a majority of the Senate, appeasing anti-abortion activists matters more than a pregnant person’s rights—or even, potentially, her life.