POLITICS

Senate GOP blocks bill to protect contraception access; Murray, Cantwell react

Jun 8, 2024, 6:55 PM

Image: At left, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 9...

At left, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Washington, D.C. At right, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., speaks during a nomination hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (Photos: Mariam Zuhaib, AP)

(Photos: Mariam Zuhaib, AP)

Senate Republicans blocked legislation Wednesday designed to protect women’s access to contraception, arguing that the bill was just a political stunt as Democrats mount an election-year effort to put GOP senators on the record on reproductive rights issues.

The test vote won a 51-39 majority, but that was well short of the 60 votes to move ahead on the legislation.

It came as the Senate has abandoned hopes of doing serious bipartisan legislation before the election. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his Democrats are trying to instead spotlight issues they believe can help them win the presidency and keep the Senate in November. A similar vote on ensuring nationwide access to in vitro fertilization is expected next week.

That bill is expected to similarly stall in the Senate, where Democrats need 60 votes to move forward on legislation. Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats will “put reproductive freedoms front and center before this chamber, so that the American people can see for themselves who will stand up to defend their fundamental liberties.”

The effort comes as Democrats worry that reproductive rights will be further threatened after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion two years ago and as they continue to see that access as one of their most potent election-year issues. President Joe Biden’s campaign has embraced reproductive rights as a key to winning undecided voters, especially women.

“Contraception is health care, essential health care, that millions of people rely on,” said Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat. She said the court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade “foretold more chaos to come.”

President Joe Biden called the Republican opposition to the bill “unacceptable.”

“We will continue to urge Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law and safeguard the right to contraception once and for all,” Biden said.

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Washington’s senators react to the contraception access bill’s failure

According to a statement from her office Wednesday, Washington Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray gave a speech on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., before the Senate’s vote on the Right to Contraception Act.

“As you just heard today, every senator will be confronted with a very simple question: should Americans have the right to contraception? The right to birth control, IUDs, Plan B? That really should not be a hard question—in fact, most Americans thought this matter was settled!” Murray said on the floor, her office said. “The vast majority of the American people, our constituents, support this right, so this should be an easy vote. This bill should pass with flying colors.”

Murray went on to call out one of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court for his support of a previous case and House Republicans for the legislation being drawn up in that chamber.

“Republicans have been making clear a bill like this is not only necessary, but it is urgent,” Murray said. “Because, not only has Justice Thomas signaled an interest in reconsidering Griswold, not only have senators said Griswold was ‘unsound,’ but there are Republican bills — right now, with large GOP support — that would severely undercut the right to birth control. (That includes) the Life at Conception Act, which is supported by more than half of the Republicans in the House—including the Speaker.”

Murray went on to talk about the purpose of this bill, which is about much more than messaging.

“This is more than a messaging bill—it is a meaningful way to protect a really fundamental right,” Murray continued, according to her office. “Democrats are going to keep pushing, full force, to hold Republicans accountable for their extreme policies and the harm they are causing.”

Cantwell cites UW Medicine abortion study

Washington Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, according to a statement released by her office Wednesday afternoon, also spoke on the Senate floor before the vote on the contraception bill. Cantwell, a cosponsor of the bill, called out recent political actions in Idaho and Virginia.

“In Idaho recently, they banned abortion. Now several of the state’s colleges have banned their staff from even speaking to students about contraception. Imagine college students in the dark about something as basic as a health care service,” Cantwell said during her floor speech, her office reported. “In Virginia, people still have abortion rights, but the governor chose to veto a bill to protect and expand birth control access just hours before the deadline. So yes — they’re not done.”

Cantwell went on to discuss a new UW Medicine study revealing that since the 2022 Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the state of Washington has seen a 50% increase in out-of-state patients seeking abortions.

“The study also found that all patients in Washington – regardless of whether they’re traveling in from anti-choice states — are getting abortions approximately one week later, compared to before the (Dobbs) decision overturned the protections established by Roe v. Wade,” Cantwell noted her speech, according to her office. “If you think about it, if you’ve seen a 50% increase in out-of-state patients, that means you’re seeing more patients. What is the effect of seeing more patients?”

Cantwell asked that since people are going to Washington for abortions, wouldn’t they come for contraception too?

“Washington saw the largest increase in patients from those states who had banned abortion states like Texas and Idaho, Louisiana, and Florida,” Sen. Cantwell continued. “Now imagine if they carry this further and ban contraception too. Our state doesn’t want to be impacted in the delivery of care. It wants people to be able to see a physician when they need to see a physician, get the care when they need to get the care.”

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Republicans respond to the bill and its failure

Minority Republicans have scoffed at the votes, saying the political messaging votes were unserious distractions from legislation they would like to vote on. “I expect we will see a lot more show votes this summer,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, on Tuesday.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of two Republicans to vote with Democrats to move forward on the bill, said Monday that she would want the legislation to be amended to include more religious liberty protections. “It is clearly a messaging attempt and not a serious attempt in itself,” she said.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who along with Collins supports abortion rights, also voted to move forward on the legislation.

Many Republicans who voted against consideration of the bill said they support access to contraception but believe the legislation is unnecessary.

“The Democrats are using their power to push an alarmist and false narrative that there is a problem accessing contraception,” said Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee.

Democrats have moved to protect various rights in the wake of the Roe decision, particularly after Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurring opinion that suggested the court also reconsider previous opinions that prohibited bans on contraceptives, sodomy and same-sex marriage.

But the Senate push on reproductive access this year differs from bipartisan legislation passed in 2022 that would protect same-sex marriage. A vote on that bill was delayed until after that year’s midterm elections to try and avoid political complications, and 12 Republicans eventually supported it, sending it to Biden’s desk.

Since Republicans took the House majority last year, though, Congress has moved on few legislative items that were not immediately urgent or that did not face deadlines for expiration. Schumer has said repeatedly that he would like to move on bills to improve rail safety, lower the cost of prescription drugs and improve online safety for children, among other bipartisan legislation. But most of those bills have stalled in the divided Congress as some Republicans and Democrats have been less willing to work together in an election year.

Instead, Schumer has focused the Senate on judicial nominations and political messaging bills, including a repeat vote last month on a border security bill that Republicans had already rejected in February after months of bipartisan negotiations. Democrats who have faced intense criticism over the border issue have hoped that they can blunt that issue somewhat by highlighting that legislation. But Republicans have said it did not go far enough.

Why Democrats seized on the contraception access issue

Democrats seized on the contraception issue after former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, said in an interview last month that he was open to supporting restrictions on birth control. He quickly reversed course and said that he “has never and never will” advocate to restrict that access.

Contraception has been increasingly entangled in the abortion debate in some conservative states, however. In Missouri, a women’s health care bill was stalled for months over concerns about expanding insurance coverage for birth control after some lawmakers falsely conflated birth control with medication abortion. In Arizona, Republicans unanimously blocked a Democratic effort to protect the right to contraception access. Tennessee Republicans blocked a bill that would have clarified that the state’s abortion ban would not affect contraceptive care or fertility treatments.

And in Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed bills from the Democratic-controlled Legislature that would have protected the right to contraception earlier this year. He said he supports the right to birth control but that “we cannot trample on the religious freedoms of Virginians.”

The Senate bill would make it federal law that an individual has the right to obtain contraceptives and to “engage in contraception,” and that health providers can provide them.

In the GOP-led House, Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina is leading a longshot effort to get enough signatures to discharge a similar version of the Senate’s contraception bill from committee and put it on the floor — a tactic used when leadership won’t bring up legislation for a vote.

Schumer said that the legislation designed to protect IVF access will come up in the Senate next week.

That bill comes after Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled frozen embryos can be considered children under state law earlier this year, causing several clinics to suspend IVF treatments. The state later enacted a law providing legal protections for IVF clinics, but Democrats have argued that Congress should act to guarantee nationwide access to reproductive care to try and prevent courts from making those decisions.

“Democrats will act to safeguard and strengthen IVF access for all Americans, so that everyone has a chance to start a family,” Schumer said.

Contributing: The Associated Press; Steve Coogan, MyNorthwest

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Senate GOP blocks bill to protect contraception access; Murray, Cantwell react