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Senate Republican’s bill puts abortion debate front and center in midterm elections

Sept. 16, 2022 Updated Sat., Sept. 17, 2022 at 10:06 p.m.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks July 29 to the Silver Elephant Gala at the Columbia Convention Center.  (Joshua Boucher/(Columbia, S.C.) State/TNS)
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks July 29 to the Silver Elephant Gala at the Columbia Convention Center. (Joshua Boucher/(Columbia, S.C.) State/TNS)

WASHINGTON – With the midterm election less than two months away, a GOP senator’s bill to restrict abortion nationwide has put the issue front and center in races in Washington state and across the country, energizing Democrats and frustrating some Republicans.

Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced legislation Tuesday that would make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy after 15 weeks, with exceptions in cases of rape and incest, and when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger, while letting more restrictive state laws stand. The South Carolina Republican’s bill comes after the Supreme Court in June overturned a nearly 50-year precedent that guaranteed a right to abortion, albeit with some limits.

In the months since the high court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization revived the national abortion debate, both parties have sought to paint each other as extreme.

Graham has framed his bill as a moderate alternative to legislation backed by Democrats that would bar nearly all state abortion restrictions, but by unveiling a specific plan, he has forced his fellow Republicans to take a stance on an issue about which voters have complicated feelings. The move also left GOP lawmakers vulnerable to allegations of hypocrisy after many Republicans – including Graham himself, as recently as May – argued that abortion laws should be left to the states.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, jumped at the opportunity to criticize Graham’s bill. In a news conference Thursday, she said that if Republicans think they can restrict abortion in blue states like Washington, “They’ve got another thing coming.”

“If there was any doubt about Republicans’ true intentions – about their extreme abortion plans – there’s no question after this week,” Murray said. “Republicans want to ban abortion in every single state. They want to punish doctors.”

If Graham’s bill becomes law, physicians would face up to five years in prison for performing an abortion. It makes no exception for fetal abnormalities that doctors can only detect after 15 weeks of gestation, including conditions that nearly guarantee an infant will not survive.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, along with subsequent rulings, effectively set a nationwide floor for abortion rights. Graham’s bill would set a federal ceiling on those rights, limiting abortion in blue states like Washington while letting red states like Idaho enact even more restrictive laws.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., cited her state’s more expansive abortion protections in a statement Tuesday.

“Washingtonians voted to protect abortion rights by a statewide initiative in 1991,” Cantwell said. “Senator Graham’s bill would overrule those rights. I’m against it.”

Nearly every GOP senator co-sponsored an earlier version of Graham’s bill that would ban abortion at 20 weeks when it was introduced in 2021 – before the Supreme Court left abortion laws to individual states – but few Senate Republicans have jumped at the opportunity to sign onto the new bill. GOP candidates in close Senate races in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia have said they would vote for the bill, prompting their Democratic opponents to go on the offensive.

Murray’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Tiffany Smiley, identifies as “pro-life” but has said she opposes a federal ban on abortion.

“Tiffany’s position has been very clear on this issue, even before the Dobbs decision was released,” Smiley spokeswoman Elisa Carlson said in an email, referring to the Supreme Court ruling in June. “She believes that the decisions regarding abortion belong closest to the voter, which is at the state level. This means that she opposes any federal abortion bans.”

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has also declined to back a federal abortion ban, telling reporters Tuesday, “I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”

Despite that stance, Murray’s campaign has accused Smiley, a veterans advocate and first-time candidate from Pasco, of trying “to hide her extreme views on abortion from Washington voters,” as Murray campaign spokeswoman Naomi Savin wrote in an Aug. 26 statement.

Meanwhile, Republicans have called Democrats extreme for opposing limits on abortion. In a statement Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to elect GOP candidates, highlighted a recent CNN interview in which Murray dodged a question when asked if she supports any abortion restrictions.

Voters’ views on abortion are notoriously difficult to gauge through opinion polls, but surveys generally show most Americans want abortion to remain legal while supporting some restrictions, especially later in a pregnancy. Roughly 9 in 10 abortions in the United States occur during the first trimester.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Jim Risch, who cosponsored the previous GOP bill, said the Idaho Republican had not extended that support to Graham’s new proposal.

“Senator Risch is not a co-sponsor of Senator Graham’s legislation, the difference being there was no Supreme Court ruling at the time of the previous version of the bill, and now the Supreme Court has left the question up to states,” spokeswoman Marty Boughton said, adding that Risch “has a strong pro-life voting record in the Senate.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, who also co-sponsored the earlier abortion bill, did not respond to questions about the Republican’s stance on Graham’s new legislation.

As of Friday, fewer than half of House Republicans – none of them from Washington, Idaho or Oregon – had co-sponsored a counterpart bill introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.

The timing of Graham’s news conference announcing his legislation was a boon to President Joe Biden and his allies in Congress, who were reeling after economic data showed higher-than-expected inflation numbers Tuesday morning. Democrats, eager to change the subject, immediately began releasing statements on the abortion bill.

“Republicans are twisting themselves into pretzels to explain their position on abortion, because they know the American people overwhelmingly side with a woman’s right to choose,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in the Thursday news conference with Murray. “The Republican abortion ban introduced this week shows the stark contrast between Democrats who are focused on creating jobs, lowering costs, and bringing our country together, and MAGA Republicans who are pushing a radical, extremist agenda.”

Despite both Democrats and Republicans introducing federal abortion legislation in Congress, neither party has the 60 votes needed in the Senate to avoid a filibuster to pass a federal abortion bill. Changing that rule, however, requires only a simple majority of 51 votes.

Democrats hold the narrowest of majorities in the evenly divided upper chamber, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.

Control of the Senate could change hands after the Nov. 8 election, when a third of the 100 senators are up for re-election, including Murray and Crapo.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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