Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Grandstanding in Congress Leaves Voters, GOP Leaders Cold

Christine Grimaldi

“If these politicians feel the need [to] prove their anti-choice bona fides before Election Day, that is probably a sign that pro-choice organizing is gaining ground,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of the pro-choice advocacy group URGE.

The U.S. Congress reconvened for just under a month in September before recessing through Election Day—but not before several prominent Republicans pursued ambitious, if scattershot, anti-choice grandstanding that may backfire at the ballot box.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle devoted much of their limited time in Washington last month to must-pass priorities, including a temporary budget agreement to avoid a government shutdown and a long-overdue funding package to combat the Zika virus. Some Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate, however, reignited ongoing fights with Democrats and abortion rights advocates that GOP leaders, by all appearances, wanted to avoid ahead of the election.

Raising these issues may be a losing strategy for some Senate candidates in battleground states at a time when Republicans are struggling to hold on to vulnerable seats.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said the House’s Pro-Choice Caucus, which she leads with Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), typically sees an uptick in such activities before an election. What Republicans don’t realize is that their “extreme actions” risk alienating millennial voters and “also people who have fought for a woman’s right to choose for many, many years.”

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“I think that’s what’s going on right now with this flurry of activity,” DeGette said on a recent call with fellow pro-choice Democrats to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment’s “undue burden.”

Perhaps the most conspicuous action occurred when Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, advanced contempt of Congress charges against a firm that handles fetal tissue for medical research. Democrats on the panel, including DeGette, walked out of the “McCarthyesque” proceedings.

Though Blackburn claimed to be working closely with Republican leaders to advance the contempt charges to a final floor vote, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) wouldn’t comment on next steps in the $1.2 million anti-abortion investigation. To DeGette, the proceedings are illustrative of Republicans’ latest anti-choice push.

“They don’t actually think that they’re going to pass something, but they think they’re going to gin up their base,” she said.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) readily admitted as much about his new legislation to criminalize a common medical procedure used after miscarriages and during second-trimester abortions.

“I don’t expect it to be able to move anywhere this year, but I do want to build on it for the next,” he told Rewire off the Senate floor.

Lankford’s proposed ban on dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedures mirrored the House version that Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced last year. Smith, co-chair of the nominally bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, similarly indicated in an interview with Rewire that the ban wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Both lawmakers pledged to reintroduce the bills in the 115th Congress, which begins in January.

Not to be left out of Republicans’ anti-choice resurgence, Smith proliferated anti-choice talking points from the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research and education arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, in “celebrating” 40 years of the Hyde Amendment’s disproportionate impact on people with low incomes and people of color.

He touted his No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2015 in sample tweets obtained by Rewire.

If anyone challenges Smith’s reputation as arguably the most abortion-obsessed lawmaker in Congress, it’s Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the author of misleading legislation to ban sex- and race-selective abortion care. Shortly before Congress recessed, Franks led a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing that once again served as a platform to advance racially biased anti-abortion myths.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the pro-choice advocacy group URGE and the only witness to support abortion rights allowed to testify during that hearing, kept her composure as Franks attempted to draw a parallel between killing “partially delivered” puppies and Black babies. His extremist rhetoric may be a response to the successes of abortion rights advocates, Johnson told Rewire via email.

“If these politicians feel the need [to] prove their anti-choice bona fides before Election Day, that is probably a sign that pro-choice organizing is gaining ground,” she said.

“One thing we have seen through this long election season is that supporters of abortion rights have pushed to get our issues on the agenda, whether that’s demands for debate moderators to #AskAboutAbortion or our success in getting the repeal of the Hyde Amendment into a major party platform and embraced by a major party candidate.”

Voters won’t stand for “far-right politicians” who attack abortion and reproductive health care, according to Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

“When members of Congress attack reproductive health care, they’re attacking the millions of patients who rely on that care each year, and this November, those attacks are coming back to bite them at the ballot box,” she said in an email.

Perhaps that’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) distanced himself from Franks’ Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (H.R. 3504), another anti-abortion bill with a ridiculous name and serious consequences that the House passed last year. Franks, during his recent hearing, called on McConnell to bring up the bill in the Senate.

“Sen. McConnell has been just unwilling to do that, and I don’t even have the words to express my disappointment,” Franks said in an interview with Rewire after the hearing.

Franks alleged that McConnell won’t do so in order to protect Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican facing a formidable challenge for his Senate seat from Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a pro-choice congresswoman currently representing Illinois’ 8th district. Franks remained convinced that a vote on the bill in the Senate would succeed, even though Republicans lack the 60-vote threshold to overcome an all-but-certain Democrat-led filibuster.

McConnell “overlooks the fact that four or five other Republicans will be protected by that vote,” Franks said, claiming that Kirk would likely be the only GOP senator to oppose the bill in an up-or-down vote—“to his eternal shame.”

A McConnell spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment—the latest indication that he and Republican leaders are unwilling to entertain their rank-and-file’s abortion grandstanding during the election season. McConnell initially opened the door to dropping the contraception restrictions that had plagued the Zika deal and prolonged the threat of a government shutdown.

Kaylie Hanson Long, national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, stressed that anti-choice lawmakers “peddling lies and legislation that do nothing but harm women” isn’t just an election issue.

“It’s an obsession that transcends elections and is tied to their fundamental belief that women are less than equal and don’t deserve to be trusted to make our own decisions and chart our own destinies,” she said.

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