WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden promised Tuesday that the first bill he sends to Capitol Hill next year will be one that writes abortion protections into law — if Democrats control enough seats in Congress to pass it — as he sought to energize his party’s voters just three weeks ahead of the November midterms.
Twice over, Biden urged people to remember how they felt in late June when the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, fresh evidence of White House efforts to ensure the issue stays front of mind for Democratic voters this year.
“I want to remind us all how we felt when 50 years of constitutional precedent was overturned,” Biden said in remarks at the Howard Theatre, “the anger, the worry, the disbelief.”
He repeatedly lambasted Republicans nationwide who have pushed for restrictions on the procedure, often without exceptions, and told Democrats in attendance that “if you care about the right to choose, then you gotta vote.”
As he has done all year, Biden emphasized that only Congress can fully restore abortion access to what it was before the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe. But he also acknowledged “we're short a handful of votes” now to reinstate abortion protections at the federal level, urging voters to send more Democrats to Congress.
“If we do that, here’s the promise I make to you and the American people: The first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v. Wade," Biden said. “And when Congress passes it, I’ll sign it in January, 50 years after Roe was first decided the law of the land.”
That's a big if.
For Biden to follow through on his pledge, Democrats would have to retain control of the House and pick up seats in the Senate — an unlikely scenario considering current political dynamics. Abortion rights have been a key motivating factor for Democrats this year, although the economy and inflation still rank as chief concern for most voters.
Abolishing the filibuster — the legislative rule that requires 60 votes for most bills to advance in the Senate — amid opposition in their own ranks will also pose a significant challenge for Democrats.
Long resistant to any revisions to Senate institutional rules, Biden said in the days after the June decision to overrule Roe that he would support eliminating the supermajority threshold for abortion bills, just as he did on voting rights legislation.
But two moderate Democrats — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Ariz., and Joe Manchin, W.Va. — support keeping the filibuster. Sinema has said she wants to retain the filibuster precisely so any abortion restrictions backed by Republicans would face a much higher hurdle to pass in the Senate.
Democratic Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the party's two best chances to flip seats currently held by Republicans — have both said they support eliminating the filibuster in order to pass abortion legislation. Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman has actively campaigned on being the 51st vote for priorities such as legalizing abortion, codifying same-sex marriage protections, and making it easier for workers to unionize — all measures that would otherwise be blocked by a filibuster in the Senate.
Abortion — and proposals from some Republicans to impose nationwide restrictions on the procedure — have been a regular fixture of Biden's political rhetoric this election cycle, as Democrats seek to energize voters in a difficult midterm season for the party in power in Washington.
In fundraisers and in political speeches, Biden has vowed to reject any abortion restrictions that may come to his desk in a GOP-controlled Congress. Like he did on Tuesday, Biden has also urged voters to boost the Democratic ranks in the Senate so enough senators would not only support reinstating abortion nationwide, but would change Senate rules to do it.
Opponents of abortion rights have also sought to capitalize on the issue, with Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, saying Tuesday that the stakes of next month’s midterm elections “could not be higher.”
“Doubling down on an extreme agenda of abortion on demand until birth won’t stop Democrats from losing Congress, even with the abortion industry spending record sums to elect them,” Dannenfelser said. “Biden’s party is on the wrong side and stunningly out of touch.
On Tuesday, Biden made a pointed appeal to young voters, who traditionally participate in lower rates than other age demographics in midterm elections. Though his remarks were primarily focused on abortion, Biden also mentioned his decisions to forgive billions of dollars in student loan debt and to issue pardons for marijuana possession — moves popular with younger voters.
“What I am saying is, you represent the best of us. Your generation will not be ignored, will not be shunned and will not be silent,” Biden said, adding: “In 2020, you voted to deliver the change you wanted to see in the world. In 2022, you need to exercise your power to vote again for the future of our nation and the future of your generation.”
Court decisions and state legislation have shifted — and sometimes, re-shifted — the status of abortion laws across the country. Currently, bans are in place at all states of pregnancy in 12 states. In another, Wisconsin, clinics have stopped providing abortions though there’s dispute over whether a ban is in effect. In Georgia, abortion is banned at the detection of cardiac activity -- generally around six weeks and before women often know they’re pregnant.
Meanwhile, codifying Roe remains a broadly popular position. In a July AP-NORC poll, 60% of U.S. adults said they believe Congress should pass a law guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide.
Even with the economy dominating so much of the midterm discourse, abortion has been a touchstone in high-profile contests from Ohio to Arizona, especially as Democrats try to trap Republicans between their most ardent anti-abortion base voters who want absolute or near-total bans and a majority of U.S. adults that wants at least some legal access to elective abortions.
For instance, in Georgia, Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker went so far in his only debate against Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, as to deny his previous support for a national abortion ban with no exceptions. Despite Walker’s previous statements captured on video, he insisted Warnock misrepresented his position. Walker said in the debate that he backs a Georgia statute outlawing abortion after six weeks of pregnancy – an effective ban for some women because it’s so early they don’t yet know they’re pregnant. The law includes exceptions for later abortions in cases of rape, incest and involving health risks to a woman.
Warnock, meanwhile, avoided direct questions about whether he’d support any abortion limits, instead turning the question to Walker’s position.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington, Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.