A proposal to protect abortion access nationwide failed when it faced a procedural vote in the Senate on Monday.
The final vote was 46-48 against the bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), meaning Democrats could not open debate on the legislation. The bill had not been expected to advance in the closely divided Senate—but as the Supreme Court weighs a case that could unravel abortion rights in the U.S., Democratic leaders are hoping to leverage the vote as a key messaging tool as they head into this year’s midterm elections.
“The American people deserve to see that while Democrats are fighting to protect their constitutional rights, Republicans are hoping the Supreme Court rolls back Roe and are actively blocking Congress from acting to protect reproductive rights,” Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, one of the bill’s lead sponsors in the Senate, told TIME before the vote.
The Supreme Court is considering a case focused on a Mississippi law that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Its ruling, expected this spring, could undermine or overturn the 1973 decision Roe vs. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion. Republican-controlled states are also rushing to pass a host of other abortion restrictions in anticipation that the Court will rule in Mississippi’s favor. March 1 will mark six months since Texas passed its six-week abortion ban, which deputizes private citizens to enforce the law, and other states are trying to follow its lead in limiting abortion in more aggressive ways.
Abortion rights advocates see the federal legislation as their best shot at codifying the right to abortion more permanently. But it’s unlikely to become law anytime soon. While the House of Representatives passed the bill in September, Democrats would have needed at least 10 Republican votes to advance the bill in the Senate. Because of the filibuster, the bill would require 60 votes to pass.
Forty-eight Senators—46 Democrats and two Independents—signed on as cosponsors of the WHPA, making Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania the only Democrats not to explicitly endorse it. Casey voted to allow debate, which he said in advance he would do. Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who have a record of supporting abortion rights, introduced an amendment ahead of the vote that would still codify Roe and would remove portions of the WHPA that they found too broad. In the end, though, they both voted against the bill.
The legislation was first introduced in Congress in 2013, but it was only after Texas passed a ban last year on abortion after six-weeks of pregnancy that it received a vote in either chamber. Democrats on Monday hailed the milestone of getting the Senate to vote on the legislation for the first time and condemned their Republican colleagues for opposing debate on the issue.
“This vote comes at a really critical time,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a press conference ahead of the vote. “Republicans are actually hoping Roe will fall. And of course we know that’s been their plan all along. Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they want a world in which, they, as politicians, get to decide what women can do with their bodies, their lives and their futures. That is not what the vast majority of Americans want.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the lead sponsor of the bill, went even further. “We’re going to hold accountable every senator who votes against this bill. Make no mistake, reproductive freedoms will be on the ballot this November,” he said at the news conference.
Despite the vote count, the situation was the best outcome that Democrats could have hoped for right now, and could actually help them campaign against Republicans, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “It’s laying the groundwork for a very powerful contrast,” she says.
“One of the biggest problems we have is convincing voters that any rights they have would ever be taken away, or that we would ever backtrack,” Lake adds. While most Americans don’t list abortion as their top concern when voting, the majority do oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade. With this vote, Lake says that Democrats can run campaign ads or tell constituents that their Republican opponents not only don’t support abortion rights, but also that they are serious about removing the right at the national level.
The message can be “they really mean that,” Lake says. “The Supreme Court made this decision, they already voted the legislation down. They really mean it. They’re really going to act on it unless you fire them.”
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