Why Senate Democrats Are Forcing an Abortion Vote They Know Will Fail

They know it will fail. They’re just hoping it will help them win this fall's elections.
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US
Pro-abortion rights demonstrators gather outside the house of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 9, 2022.
Pro-abortion rights demonstrators gather outside the house of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 9, 2022. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images)

Senate Democrats will hold a vote on a bill to protect abortion access nationally on Wednesday. And they know it will fail. But they’re just hoping it will help them in this fall’s elections.

“It’ll put every senator on record. I’m still hoping it will pass, but I'm realistic enough to know that it's an uphill fight,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the bill’s chief sponsor, told VICE News. “One way or the other, going into November and elections beyond, every senator will be held accountable.”

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This particular bill is almost certain to fail, with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who opposes abortion rights, siding with all 50 Senate Republicans—including ostensibly pro-abortion rights GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who have quibbles with the particular bill.

So with Republicans on the cusp of completing a half-century project to undo Roe v. Wade, Democrats are turning to the midterms. The hope is this can help them turn out enough suburban women and young voters who have soured on their party to allow Democrats to cling to their tenuous control of the Senate in an otherwise atrocious political environment.

“When we vote on this bill, every single senator is going to have to go on the record as to whether they want to take their constituents’ rights away. Republicans are going to have to go on record as to whether they want this to be the first generation of American women with less freedom than their mothers,” Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said during Democrats’ weekly leadership press conference. “We’re not going to let anyone forget.”

Republicans won just enough Senate seats just enough times in recent years to pack the Supreme Court with a 6-3 majority that is poised to eliminate the national right to an abortion. And Democrats are just beginning to grapple with how to fight back.

“Women are understandably scared and they're angry at this threat against our rights,” Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen said. “We have to take that fear, we have to take that anger that we're feeling and channel it into action to defend our majority. We have to elect more pro-choice senators.”

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Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who is heading his party’s midterm campaign efforts, told VICE News “there's no question this will be a major issue” in the fall—and predicted it would help motivate Democrats to the polls.

“From a motivational standpoint, in the past pro-choice voters always knew that regardless what happened, Roe v. Wade was a backstop,” he said. “If that backstop is removed, then this becomes a very real issue and will be much more motivating than the choice issue has been in the past.”

And it’s clear Democrats are trying to make it a campaign issue. They need something, anything, to change a grim political environment.

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, one of the Democrats facing a potentially tough reelection, already released an online ad that blasts her potential GOP opponents for opposing abortion rights.

Other Democrats facing tough reelection fights aren’t shying away from the issue either.

“I think it's pretty horrible that women in our country have lost rights that they've had for 50 years,” Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly told VICE News on Tuesday. “I am expecting people [on the campaign trail] to be asking questions about ‘how did this happen, and what do we do now?’ I've got a 1-year-old grandchild who will have fewer rights than folks who came before.”

Abortion may well be a huge issue in this fall’s midterm elections, but it’s unlikely many voters will have any idea about this particular vote. There’s an old, bad joke that since pro is the opposite of con, the opposite of progress is Congress. Senators, especially Democrats, excel at putting messaging bills forward that go nowhere with the hope that those bills can win them a seat or two in the next election.

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And it’s rare for messaging votes to leave much of an impression. Democrats already forced a Senate vote on this same bill just a few months ago and they’ve held votes on gun control ad nauseam for years in hopes they’d shame Republicans and help themselves at the polls, to little effect.

If Democrats completely upend expectations, prove the polls wrong and gain Senate seats this fall while hanging onto the House—an unlikely result, to say the least—they’d still likely be short of the votes needed to restore Roe’s protections. The filibuster means most substantial legislation needs 60 votes, and since a handful of Democratic senators remain opposed to changing the filibuster, Democrats would need a near-miracle politically to win enough seats to be able to end that policy anytime soon.

In short, even if the end of Roe v. Wade triggers a sudden Democratic wave election, they’d still face an uphill battle to put its protections back into place. And even if they somehow manage to do so, Republicans could just undo the policy the next time they have unified control of government.

It is clear, however, that Republicans don’t want abortion to be the focus heading into the midterms.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to downplay the risk of a national abortion ban on Tuesday afternoon, walking back earlier comments he’d made that suggested Republicans could pursue such legislation.

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“It’s safe to say there aren’t 60 votes there at the federal level—no matter who happens to be in the majority, no matter who happens to be in the White House,” McConnell said during his weekly press conference. “So I think the widespread sentiment of my caucus is that this issue will be dealt with at the state level.”

In a memo the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated to GOP members that was obtained by Axios, campaign strategists encouraged members to emphasize that states would get to choose what to do, and pivot to economic issues and immigration, another tell that the GOP doesn’t want to talk about the issue.

“When you see Republicans not willing to embrace this decision, you know they know they're on their back foot. We know they know that this is not a decision that is favored by the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Schumer declared Tuesday that the vote was just the first step Senate Democrats would take to fight for abortion rights. But he didn’t have a clear answer when asked what the second step would be.

“This is the first time this is no longer just an abstract exercise. Now we know women's rights are at stake. So this vote is the first step,” he said. “We're going to keep fighting and we will be pursuing the best path forward.”

But while surveys consistently show large majorities of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, early polling suggests the issue might not be the political salve Democrats are hoping for.

A CNN-SSRS poll conducted in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court draft opinion’s leak found that while two-thirds of registered voters opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, those who say overturning the decision would make them “happy” are nearly twice as enthusiastic about voting this fall as those who say such a ruling would leave them “angry,” showing Republicans’ enthusiasm voting gap could outweigh broader public opinion on this issue. Abortion has traditionally ranked very low on voters’ priority list, and while the actual court decision may well change that, there are few signs that the leaked draft opinion has done so.

Senate Democrats will undoubtedly keep talking about the issue. But at this point, talk is all they have.