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GOP Theater (Once Again) Presents: The 20-Week Abortion Ban

Republicans knew they didn't have the votes to pass the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act." But yesterday's vote was all about grandstanding for the midterms, taking nasty to a new level.

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We just wrapped the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and so far the Republican-controlled Congress has managed to do very little other than pass tax cuts for the richest Americans and shutdown the government a few times. With so much pressing work left undone, the Senate held a vote not to fund the government or pass immigration reform and help hundred of thousands of DREAMers stay in the country, but to ban abortion at the point of 22 weeks gestation (20 weeks after fertilization).

The vote was pure theater. Every person on the floor, in the audience, in advocacy groups or in the media, or who even glancingly knows anything about the abortion debate in the United States knew that the GOP didn’t have the 60 votes necessary to overcome the Senate filibuster. It wasn’t totally certain that they had enough votes to even get a majority (they squeaked by on a 51-46 vote, with helping hands from three Democrats). No one from the anti-abortion movement or the right itself even really even cared. It was a vote meant to let Republican senators grandstand about their love for life in the womb, and force vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election to make an uncomfortable vote that the GOP hopes will torpedo them in the 2018 midterms.

Because that was what it was all about—and all it ever was about.

Politics is always more theater than anything else. The showy, fiery speeches from the chamber floor, the clotures, filibusters, and other procedural moves that often make it look as if Congress is doing work when all too often they are simply passing the ball from one party and back. But the battle over the 20-week federal ban took the usual theatrics and pushed it up to a new level.

The so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” already got a good scrub and a pretty coat of paint after it even failed to make it up for a vote back in 2015. Now, the bill not only still contains the scientifically dubious claim that a fetus can feel pain at 22 weeks gestation (the medical consensus is that it’s highly unlikely), but they’ve saccharinely dubbed the bill “Micah’s Law” after Micah Pickering, a boy who was born at 22 weeks gestation and survived, but who was never in any danger of being aborted. It was launched in the House to great fanfare in October yet never made it for a Senate vote until anti-abortion political groups—in particular the Susan B. Anthony List—forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hand by getting President Trump to demand a vote during 2018 March for Life on January 19.

Like all good productions, everything was orchestrated to the last detail. President Trump’s lines were taken straight from the SBA List talking points, including the one about how the United States is “one of only seven countries to allow elective late-term abortions, along with China, North Korea, and others.” (Note: it will always be China and North Korea, never Canada and the Netherlands, because the GOP never passes up a chance for a little subtle racism when it’s there.) The vote was cast the day before the State of the Union address, likely allowing the president to have a chance in prime time to tell a national audience that Democrats voted to “allow babies to be torn limb from limb,” and potentially distract from the looming Russia investigation, the GOP attempts to end affordable health insurance plans, or that hundreds of thousands of people are about to be deported for the crime of having parents who brought them into the country as children.

Make no mistake about it, this was never a vote held to actually stop abortion later in pregnancy. What it was, and all it was always meant to be, was a tactic to sway the results of the 2018 midterms in the Republican Party’s favor. It was an event staged to provide soundbites for battleground state contests. It was election commercial fodder. It was one massive in-kind donation for the RNC. A “pro-life” photo-op and fund-raiser.

And it isn’t by any means done. Tonight, when the president addresses the nation in the State of the Union you can be certain he will return to this vote—the one McConnell had to rush into place in order to get it through in time. Like the GOP Senators on the floor, like the anti-abortion advocacy groups who already launched their new websites condemning battleground Democrats and who have their canvassers knocking doors at this very moment to tell local voters their current Senator supports “painfully dismembering babies in the womb,” the president too will weaponize the Senate vote. He will campaign from the podium, he will make his own speech another commercial to be used to win the midterms.

Because that is all our political system is at this point. We’ve stopped governing. We’ve stopped trying to make progress. We’ve stopped using the system to try to make the country a better place for everyone. Now it’s just about creating gridlock. It’s about holding children’s health insurance hostage to get a budget for three weeks in order to hold immigrants hostage to extend funding for three weeks more. It’s about passing tax breaks for the wealthy to give more money to politicians who will pass more tax breaks for the wealthy. It’s about giving up on ever building anything and instead just holding your breath that it won’t all be broken too badly to repair.

The 20-week ban vote was grand theater for the GOP, and they got exactly what they needed—fodder to take out a few vulnerable Democratic senators in the hopes that they can have more control in the chamber and then try to pass the ban again. They very well may even be successful. While it appears as if there is a tremendous Democratic wave brewing on the horizon, I don’t discount the massive grassroots power that the anti-abortion groups hold, or their ability to wield that power in a strategic enough way to get the election results they want. We can’t forget that they were the ones on the ground in key states in 2016 that gave us the improbable Donald Trump electoral college victory. They know how to target just enough voters to get a win, even if they don’t have the support of the majority.

And that’s the most important thing to remember as this vote echoes on throughout the midterm campaigns: They do not have a majority. When they say that most Americans support a ban at 20 weeks, they don’t say that they didn’t tell respondents there is no exception for pregnancies resulting from rape, or that there is other polling showing that a majority supports abortion in later pregnancy when there is a fetal anomaly or a health risk to the pregnant person. They won’t talk about the 48-hour mandatory wait and counseling that they want a person who has been raped to undergo before being allowed a procedure as under their “exception” rule, or that the restrictions on how the abortion must be performed are created to ensure that the fetus is born alive—and to make doctors too fearful of legal repercussions to actually end the pregnancy, anyway. They especially won’t remind anyone that they were so incensed when Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers sidelined the original bill because it required sexual assault survivors to report their attack to the police that they forced her out of office the next election cycle.

It’s going to be an ugly Senate race for Missouri’s Clare McCaskill, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, North Dakota’s Heidi Heidkamp, and a handful of other incumbents, and this vote is guaranteed to make it even uglier. But the ugliest thing of all may very well be realization that the Senate, the President, the very institutions of our government itself are no longer about creating laws and policy, but are instead about leveraging one party for electoral victory.

After all, who wants to actually govern when there’s always another race to win?

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