Anti-abortion vote in the Senate will, politically speaking, have something for everyone

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks about his legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of fetal development.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks about his legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of fetal development. AP

The Senate’s abortion vote Monday is bound to fail, but its legacy will live on because the vote will conveniently have something for every politician to boast about.

Officially, the vote is to limit debate on legislation that under most circumstances will make it illegal to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Sixty votes are needed to cut off a filibuster, and that’s probably unattainable, meaning the bill will effectively die.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the bill’s lead sponsor, will score points with his conservative base — one that’s been grumbling in recent months over the return of “Lindsey Grahmnesty” and his crusade to find a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will get accolades from the far-right as well for scheduling the vote in the first place.

He’ll also be doing a favor for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and any other fundraising or grassroots activist organizations looking to bolster the GOP’s numbers in the Senate in 2018: Moderate, vulnerable Democrats could be in a bind over how to vote, and voting “no” could create instant campaign fodder for Republican opponents.

On the flip side, Democrats could see a windfall from donors concerned that the Republicans are seeking to enact an ideological agenda that can only be thwarted by Democrats retaking the Senate. The party needs a net gain of two seats this year to win a majority.

“Instead of focusing on passing legislation that would protect Dreamers or keep the government open past February 8, Senate Republicans are voting on — you guessed it — an abortion ban,” NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted recently in a bid to energize supporters.

A chance for political victories is not the only reason why Republicans have set up a vote to limit debate on the “Pain Capable Child Protection Act.”

There are currently 46 Republican co-sponsors and it’s not clear whether any Democrats are prepared to vote “yes,” though Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana supported similar legislation the last time it was brought to the floor in 2015. The procedural vote to advance the bill fell six votes short of 60.

In a press call this past week sponsored by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, Sen. Joni Ernst’s voice broke as the Iowa Republican described how a three-year-old boy survived premature birth at five months old when he was only the size of “a bag of M&M’s.”

Graham, who has worked on versions of this bill since 2013, said on the call the bill was not about politics, but about “who we want to be” as Americans, pointing out that the United States is one of just seven countries where there is no federal law banning abortions after 20 weeks. There are currently 21 states with such laws, including South Carolina, and Graham said it will become “increasingly difficult” for Democrats to reject enacting the prohibition on the federal level as more states pass similar acts.

Graham also made the point that “majorities matter,” that the only reason a procedural vote could be scheduled on this bill on the Senate floor was that McConnell, a Republican, controlled the legislative calendar.

Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser also made it clear that politics would not left out of the equation, warning that the Monday vote “helps us know who stands with their constituents.”

She called out six states where Democrats are facing tough reelection campaigns — Ohio, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Florida — and cited SBA List-commissioned poll numbers from late 2016 showing how likely voters in those states were to support candidates who opposed the 20-week abortion ban bill.

In Missouri, where Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is likely to face a staunch conservative this fall, Dannenfelser said constituents were “56 percent less likely to support Senator who votes to allow late-term abortion.”

In Florida, where Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is expecting a challenge from GOP Gov. Rick Scott, Dannenfelser said constituents were 46 percent less likely.

McCaskill and Nelson did not vote on cloture for the 2015 bill.

McCaskill’s spokeswoman said her boss would not change her stance on the bill.

“She believes we should focus on preventing abortion and not criminalizing women and their doctors,” said Sarah Feldman.

Nelson is also “likely” to vote Monday as he did three years ago, according to his spokesman Ryan Brown.

“While Sen. Nelson is personally opposed to abortion and believes it should be rare, he supports a woman's right to make decisions about her life and health with her doctor without interference from the government,” Brown said.

Proponents of the legislation cite medical evidence that a fetus can feel pain starting at 20 weeks in the womb, while opponents say that science is non-conclusive, even debatable.

While Graham’s bill would exempt women from the ban whose lives are in danger or are seeking abortions as a result of rape or incest, it would not create exceptions for women who want to terminate pregnancies where the baby would be born with health conditions beyond help, and might possibly die moments after birth.

Lindsay Wise and Alex Daugherty of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain