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Lost on abortion politics, Republicans struggle for a solution

Mitch McConnell (R), John Cornyn (L) and John Thune (2nd R) during a media briefing.

The GOP is so divided over abortion politics that even top Mitch McConnell allies — who could succeed him as Senate leader — have opposing ideas on how to approach it.

Minority Whip John Thune sees a 15-week national abortion ban as something Republicans can defend amidst Democratic attacks. Another possible GOP leader, John Cornyn of Texas, doesn’t see a need for Congress to weigh in on abortion policy in a post-Roe world. And GOP No. 3 John Barrasso said simply that “states ought to make the decision.”

It’s a microcosm of the bigger problem facing Republicans as the 2024 election draws near: With the national right to an abortion overturned, there’s no clear course for a safe political harbor on an issue where many voters are seeking middle ground. Republicans acknowledge that abortion is costing them votes in some races, but their tactical disagreements over what to do about it are tough to settle without a clear leader to follow.

And the GOP can’t avoid abortion following last year’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, from the looming Supreme Court decision over abortion medication to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R-Fla.) approval of a six-week abortion ban just last week. Every new possible abortion restriction animates Democratic attacks — and it’s taking a toll, from Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court race this month to last year’s disappointing finish in Senate races.

“We’ve got to come up with a position that’s a winning one,” Thune (R-S.D.) argued in an interview. “Our guys say, ‘well, it’s a states issue.’ Great, but the Dems are going to be out here advocating for what I think is a very extreme position. And we want to be able to contrast ours with theirs.”

A year ago, a national abortion ban for later in pregnancy had strong backing among congressional Republicans, nearly all of whom voted for late-term abortion bans when they came to the floor. But Roe‘s demise and the ensuing political fallout scrambled all that, factionalizing a GOP that had become nearly uniformly anti-abortion rights just as Democrats largely adopted a pro-abortion rights stance.

“The [Republican] Party, I don’t think, really is setting any sort of guidelines, or coming to some consensus,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Complicating Republicans’ decision-making, polls and election results over the past year show an electorate mostly moving away from the GOP on abortion, even in red states like Kansas. Yet the party’s base and anti-abortion rights lobby is not backing away from the debate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks, while allowing states with stricter bans to supersede the national policy. The South Carolina Republican introduced the bill last year in the wake of Roe‘s reversal, roiling a Senate GOP that in many ways was pivoting to viewing abortion limits as a state-level decision, save for a handful of supporters like Thune.

These days Cornyn’s stance of leaving abortion to the states probably commands majority support in the Senate GOP.

“The answer is that those decisions should be made at the state level, instead of here in Washington D.C.,” said Cornyn, describing himself as an “unapologetically pro-life Republican.”

“I know that’s not entirely satisfactory for those who’d like to impose a national standard.”

As to whether restrictions on a national level would get a vote under a future GOP Senate, Cornyn replied: “I don’t think so. But I know that there are those who would disagree with me.”

Cornyn and Thune agree that the Republican Party needs to more directly confront the potential that abortion continues to drag down their party. The Texan, a former party whip, said “Republicans need to learn how to talk about it” by highlighting Democrats’ views on late-term abortion access.

Thune was even more blunt, observing that “the messaging around it right now is just making it more challenging for our side.” He described his party’s presidential field as “getting hammered” on the matter.

Other than a handful of votes, including Wednesday’s unsuccessful attempt in the Senate to roll back abortion policy at the Veterans’ Affairs Department, Republicans in Congress are keeping a lower profile on the issue. The new House majority has not yet voted on the type of sweeping abortion ban the party once supported.

What’s more, Graham’s 15-week ban bill drew only nine co-sponsors last year, including Thune. That relatively scant support shows how few Republicans want to touch the issue since Roe got overturned.

“it was a significant factor in the last election. And I think it’ll be an issue going forward,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who backs the Graham bill.

Nonetheless, Cramer advised fellow Republicans to “pick your place and articulate your position and then move on to other topics. Don’t try to get too cute .”

Meanwhile, even lower-level judicial confirmations are boomeranging on Republicans. The party’s unilateral confirmation of Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in 2019 is drawing fresh scrutiny after Kacsmaryk ruled against abortion medication in the case that’s now at the Supreme Court.

Cornyn blanched at Kacsmaryk’s ruling, surmising that “judges are not supposed to make policy, as we know, but unfortunately today … people are casting judges in a role as political actors. But the remedy for judges making erroneous decision is an appeal to the higher court. And that’s what’s happening.”

“It’s quite telling that with basically the same case, a different judge in a different jurisdiction ruled exactly the opposite way,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is openly regretting her vote for Kacsmaryk.

Some reliably red states have learned that lesson firsthand. Kansas voters handily rejected a referendum to remove abortion rights from the state Constitution last August, the first signal after June’s Supreme Court ruling that abortion is no longer breaking along traditional conservative and liberal voting lines.

“Does this matter to Americans? Does it affect the way they vote? The answer is yes,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “When Roe v. Wade was overturned, it caused people to think about this topic on both sides of the issue. And Kansans and Americans have strong feelings about it.”

Still, just a few weeks after that Kansas abortion vote, Moran’s fellow Kansas GOP Sen. Roger Marshall signed onto Graham’s bill.

Graham devised his bill as a preelection landing place for Republicans, defining what he saw as a defensible position heading into the midterm election. And he still believes it’s a useful tool: “We need to be really clear: We’re against late-term abortions at the federal level.”

He’s still got some boosters. Steve Daines, who runs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, said that a 15-week national ban represents “ground we can bring our country together on.”

“Where the majority of the American people are on late term abortion, with exceptions, that’s where I think we should be on it,” the Montana Republican said in an interview.

Yet as long as the legislative filibuster remains in place, there’s a scant chance of any abortion bill getting 60 votes in the Senate. And don’t expect many in the GOP, even those who believe banning abortion is a moral imperative, to start clamoring for a stronger congressional role.

“There’s a lot of concern out there in terms of how to properly address it. And this is a sensitive issue,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “It’s a state’s tissue. And I think it should be that way. Because I don’t think at the federal level, we should be moving it back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.”


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