Democratic lawmakers in the United States Senates failed on Wednesday to advance a bill legalising abortion nationwide, but succeeded in putting Republicans on record opposing the measure as both parties position for a looming political battle.
Republicans blocked the measure in a Senate procedural vote 49-51 that fell short of the 60-vote threshold needed. Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the vote in the Senate, where Democrats hold only a 51-50 majority over Republicans.
The action comes as the US Supreme Court appears ready to abandon its landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade that made abortion legal in all 50 US states.
“The American people are watching,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of the vote. “The public will not forget which side of the vote senators fall on today.”
The outcome of the court’s actual ruling, expected in June, is sure to reverberate around the nation and on the campaign trail ahead of the fall midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress.
Scores of House Democratic lawmakers marched protest-style to the Senate and watched from the Senate visitor galleries.
One by one, Democratic senators delivered speeches on the Senate floor contending that undoing abortion access would mean great harm, not only for women but for all Americans planning families and futures.
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto said that most American women have only known a world where abortion access was guaranteed but could face a future with fewer rights than their mothers or grandmothers.
“That means women will not have the same control over their lives and bodies as men do, and that’s wrong,” she said in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote.
Two Republican senators who support abortion access – Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins – were “no” votes on advancing the bill, having proposed a more tailored approach to counter the Supreme Court’s potential action.
“I plan to continue working with my colleagues on legislation to maintain – not expand or restrict – the current legal framework for abortion rights in this country,” Collins said in a statement.
Few Republican senators spoke in favour of ending abortion access, even though most joined in voting to block the bill from advancing.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, an architect of the effort to install conservative justices on the Supreme Court — including three during the era of Republican former US President Donald Trump – has sought to downplay the outcome of any potential changes in federal abortion policy.
“This issue will be dealt with at the state level,” McConnell said.
At least 19 US states have abortion bans that either predate the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling or would go into effect if it is struck down. Meanwhile, 16 states and Washington, DC have laws that protect abortion services.
Senator John Thune, a Republican, argued that the proposed bill was extreme, and would expand abortion access beyond what is already the law in the US and other leading countries around the world.
One Democrat – Senator Joe Manchin, who represents a largely Republican state – told reporters he supported keeping Roe v Wade, but would vote “no” on this bill as too broad, joining Republicans to block its consideration.
Security on Wednesday was tight at the US Capitol and was bolstered across the street at the Supreme Court after thousands of protesters assembled in front of the court last week following the leak of a court draft decision on abortion.
Congress has battled for years over abortion policy, but the vote to take up the abortion rights bill was given new urgency after the disclosure of the draft Supreme Court opinion by the conservative majority to overturn the Roe decision that many had believed to be settled law.
With congressional elections coming up in November, both parties face enormous pressure to convince voters they are doing all they can; the Democrats working to preserve abortion access, the Republicans to limit or end it.