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Democrats' bid to enshrine Roe v. Wade abortion access as federal law fails in U.S. Senate

U.S. Senate Democrats fell far short Wednesday in a rushed effort toward enshrining Roe v. Wade abortion access as federal law, blocked by a Republican filibuster in a blunt display of the nation's partisan divide over the landmark court decision and the limits of legislative action.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin votes with Republicans against proceeding

Senate not in line with most Americans on abortion access: VP

5 months ago
Duration 0:55
U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, who presided over Wednesday's vote in the Senate on the Women’s Health Protection Act, said the outcome suggests the legislative body is not is not "where the majority of Americans are" on abortion access, and makes clear for people who care about the issue that "the priority should be to elect pro-choice leaders."

U.S. Senate Democrats fell far short Wednesday in a rushed effort toward enshrining Roe v. Wade abortion access as federal law, blocked by a Republican filibuster in a blunt display of the nation's partisan divide over the landmark court decision and the limits of legislative action.

The almost party-line tally promises to be the first of several efforts in the U.S. Congress to preserve the nearly 50-year-old court ruling, which declares a constitutional right to abortion services but is at serious risk of being overturned this summer by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. President Joe Biden said that Republicans "have chosen to stand in the way of Americans' rights to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies, families and lives."

Biden urged voters to elect more abortion-rights lawmakers in November and pledged in the meantime to explore other ways to secure the rights established in Roe.

For now, his party's slim majority proved unable to overcome the filibuster led by Republicans, who have been working for decades to install conservative Supreme Court justices and end Roe v. Wade. The vote was 51-49 against proceeding, with 60 votes needed to move ahead.

"The American people are watching," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of the vote. "The public will not forget which side of the vote senators fall on today."

A years-long battle on abortion

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — seen standing alongside U.S. Sen. Patty Murray outside of the Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday — said the American public 'will not forget which side of the vote senators fall on today.' (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Congress has battled for years over abortion policy, but the Wednesday vote to take up a House-passed bill was given new urgency after the disclosure of a draft Supreme Court opinion to overturn the Roe decision that many had believed to be settled law.

The outcome of the conservative-majority court's actual ruling, expected this summer, is sure to reverberate around the country and on the campaign trail ahead of the fall midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress.

U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks to reporters while departing the U.S. Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Security was tight at the U.S. Capitol where U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris presided, and it has been bolstered across the street at the Supreme Court after protesters turned out in force last week following the leaked draft.

Scores of House Democratic lawmakers marched protest-style to the Senate and briefly watched from the visitor galleries.

Manchin votes with Republicans

Harris can provide a tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 split Senate, but that was beside the point on Wednesday. One conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted with the Republicans, saying he supported keeping Roe v. Wade but believed the current bill was too broad.

"The Senate is not where the majority of Americans are on this issue," Harris said afterward.

Manchin, seen walking through the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, voted with the Republicans, saying he supported keeping Roe v. Wade but believed the current bill was too broad. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Over several days, Democratic senators delivered speeches contending that undoing abortion access would mean great harm, not only for women but for all Americans planning families and futures.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat from Nevada, said that most American women have only known a world where abortion access was guaranteed but could face a future with fewer rights than their mothers or grandmothers.

"That means women will not have the same control over their lives and bodies as men do, and that's wrong," she said in the run-up to Wednesday's vote.

Few Republican senators spoke in favour of ending abortion access, but they embraced the filibuster to block the bill from advancing.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, an architect of the effort to install conservative justices on the Supreme Court — including three during the Trump era — has sought to downplay the outcome of any potential changes in federal abortion policy.

"This issue will be dealt with at the state level," McConnell said.

Some other Republicans, including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, argue that the House-passed bill is more extreme than Roe, and would expand abortion access beyond what is already the law.

About half the states already have approved laws that would further restrict or ban abortions, including some trigger laws that would take effect once the court rules.

Most Americans want abortion access preserved

Polls show that most Americans want to preserve access to abortion in the earlier stages of pregnancy, but views are more nuanced and mixed when it comes to later-term abortions.

The draft court ruling on a case from Mississippi suggested the majority of conservative justices are prepared to end the federal right to abortion, leaving it to the states to decide.

Abortion rights activists protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

Whatever the Supreme Court says this summer, it will almost guarantee a new phase of political fighting in Congress over abortion policy, filibuster rules and the most basic rights to health care, privacy and protecting the unborn.

In recent years, abortion debates have come to a political draw in Congress. Bills would come up for votes — to expand or limit services — only to fail along party lines or be stripped out of broader legislative packages.

In the House, where Democrats have the majority, lawmakers approved the abortion-rights Women's Health Protection Act last year on a largely party line vote after the Supreme Court first signaled it was considering the issue by allowing a Texas law's ban to take effect.

But the bill has languished in the Senate, evenly split with bare Democratic control because of Harris's ability to cast a tie-breaking vote.

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