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Ruling Roils Hill Debate on Abortion

While many Congressional Republicans praised Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision to uphold a federal ban on one type of abortion procedure, Democrats were taken aback by the decision, and some who initially supported the ban appear to be having a bit of buyers’ remorse.

“I think a number of people who voted for it thought that the court would ultimately strike it down,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who voted along with 16 other Democrats for the bill in 2003. The measure ultimately passed the Senate 64-34.

Carper would not say whether he was reconsidering his vote but said he was “surprised” by the decision. He said he thought the court would find fault with the law, because it does not include an exception to the ban for women whose health would suffer without the procedure, known as partial-birth abortion.

Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), an abortion-rights opponent who voted for the bill, seemed to think the Supreme Court’s decision was unwise.

“I would only say that this is the only decision a lot of us wish that Alito weren’t there and O’Connor were there,” said Reid at a press conference. He was referencing the fact that conservative Associate Justice Samuel Alito, whom President Bush nominated in 2005, replaced the more moderate Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. As the newest member of the court, Alito, arguably, cast the deciding vote in Wednesday’s narrow 5-4 decision.

National Abortion Federation President and CEO Vicki Saporta said the court’s decision should be a catalyst for Republicans and Democrats who voted for the ban but who have also said they support the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion to rethink their 2003 position.

“For those on the Hill who have repeatedly said that they support Roe and a woman’s right to choose, they need to support the Freedom of Choice Act,” said Saporta, referencing a bill that would codify the Roe v. Wade decision. “Legislators who are on the Hill cannot ignore the implications of this Supreme Court decision.”

Several Senators who supported the partial-birth abortion ban, including Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), have nonetheless indicated a general desire to keep abortion legal.

Neither Reid nor Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addressed whether they would bring up legislation to repeal the law or otherwise try to guarantee that women would, by law rather than court ruling, be able to get an abortion in the first two trimesters of a pregnancy.

However, lawmakers who support abortion rights made it clear that they would press both leaders to bring up the Freedom of Choice Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y).

Boxer said she and Nadler would both introduce their bills today and that she would begin laying the groundwork in the Senate for its eventual consideration, saying she did not know if she had enough votes to beat back a likely GOP filibuster.

“It’s not ripe right now,” Boxer said in a phone interview with reporters. “I’ve got to get as many sponsors as I can. We’ve got to get this country focused on this. … We’ve got a lot of work to do before we pass a major bill like this.”

And even though Reid likely would not vote for any abortion-rights legislation on the floor, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said he would be “totally supportive” in assisting pro-abortion rights Democrats in bringing a bill to the floor, “if we have a strategy.”

She noted that any such strategy was “in the early stages. … We’re looking at what our options are at this point.”

But Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who supported the ban, said he did not see a way for Congress to tackle the issue again.

“I voted for the ban. I’m not surprised that the Supreme Court upheld it,” he said. “I doubt that Congress will revisit it.”

Republicans also discounted the ability of Democrats to respond legislatively to the ruling.

“Democrats would be really hard-pressed to put anything on the floor in response,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is anti-abortion.

He acknowledged that any measure supporting abortion rights likely would be blocked by Republicans, but he said Democrats also would “be hard-pressed to get to 50 [votes] on that,” much less the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster given the number of anti-abortion Democrats in the Senate.

Indeed, 12 Democrats who supported the ban still serve in the Senate, though several of those also support Roe v. Wade. Only three Senate Republicans — two of whom are still serving — opposed the ban.

Thune said he also doubted Pelosi’s ability to draw a solid majority in the House for any legislation supporting abortion rights. The November elections that gave Democrats control of the chamber “did nothing but add to the ranks of pro-life Democrats,” Thune noted.

When the House passed the partial-birth abortion bill in 2003, 63 Democrats joined 218 Republicans in supporting it.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said abortion-rights opponents in Congress now see an opening to push more restrictions on abortion procedures.

“What it may do is prompt some other legislative efforts here … since the Supreme Court seems now more inclined to defer to Congress on this issue,” he said, noting that he did not yet have any specific bills in mind.

Indeed, Republicans and anti-abortion groups declared the court’s decision the first step to an eventual ban on all abortions and a wholesale shift in the way people would look at the issue.

“The debate on partial-birth abortion is over. The liberal extremists left defending it are part of a rapidly shrinking minority, and they only help to solidify the GOP as the party of life,” declared one Senate GOP aide.

The aide added, “It gives more momentum to the cause for life. As science continues to advance and shine new light on children in the womb, decisions like this underscore our nation’s move toward valuing life.”

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