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Biden says codifying abortion rights would be top priority if Democrats keep Congress

President seeks to rally the base ahead of the midterms, but he won’t be on the campaign trail this weekend

President Joe Biden greats guests Tuesday after an abortion rights-themed campaign event at the Howard Theatre in Washington.
President Joe Biden greats guests Tuesday after an abortion rights-themed campaign event at the Howard Theatre in Washington. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden pledged Tuesday that his first legislative priority would be to codify abortion rights protections upended when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, if Democrats hold control of the House and Senate next year.

Speaking at an event organized by the Democratic National Committee at the Howard Theatre in Washington, Biden referenced state-level restrictions on abortion that have taken effect since the high court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“The only sure way to stop these extremist laws that are — put in jeopardy women’s health and rights is for Congress to pass a law. And I’ve said before, the court got Roe right nearly 50 years ago, and believe Congress should codify Roe once and for all,” the president said. “Together we’ll restore the right to choose for every woman in every state in America, so vote. You’ve got to get out the vote. We can do this if we vote.”

Biden criticized GOP proposals that would prohibit or severely limit abortion — including a ban, with some exceptions, after 15 weeks, which Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been championing.

“If such a bill were to pass in the next several years, I’ll veto it. But we can’t let it pass in the first instance,” he said.

Republicans are widely expected to pick up sufficient House seats to claim the majority, with Nathan L. Gonzales and the Inside Elections team currently projecting a net GOP gain of eight to 20 seats in that chamber, which would be more than enough to control the speaker’s gavel in the next Congress. The Senate situation is also fluid, with a realistic possibility of either party possessing the majority — or a repeat of the current 50-50 chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break ties in favor of Democrats.

Biden would realistically need at least 52 members of the Senate Democratic caucus in order to advance abortion rights-related legislation, given opposition from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to using a simple majority to carve out filibuster exceptions for legislation related to the president’s priorities, including abortion rights and voting rights.

“Right now, we’re short a handful of votes,” the president said of the legislative proposal he said he would want to sign into law in January if given the opportunity by voters.

Congress’ attempts to pass abortion rights legislation have fallen short despite Democratic majorities in both chambers.

The Senate voted twice in 2022 on nearly identical bills, in February and May, that would have codified the right to an abortion while also prohibiting other types of state-level pre-viability restrictions such as mandatory waiting periods or restrictions or telehealth restrictions that apply only to abortion. Both were rejected on cloture votes, with no Republicans joining Democrats.

The two Republican senators who support abortion rights, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, introduced their own version of a codification bill in May, although it never saw a vote. That bill would protect abortion rights in line with the rulings under landmark cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but it is not as broad as the Democrats’ bill.

In August, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., joined forces with Sinema, Collins and Murkowski to introduce a bipartisan bill that would codify the right to abortion and to contraception. The bipartisan bill, which has been panned by progressive Democrats as not broad enough, would protect the privacy precedent that allows access to contraception.

The original Roe v. Wade ruling is built on a right to contraception established in Griswold v. Connecticut. Democrats have sounded the alarm about losing access to contraception after Roe was overturned in June.

Holding the House and Senate to revive abortion rights was the president’s key message during Tuesday’s speech in Washington, which offered the president a chance to make his midterm messaging pitch on the friendliest of terrain. The president has been on the road recently, including a West Coast swing that saw him make a series of official and campaign stops in Colorado, California and Oregon.

He is also heading back to Pennsylvania and Florida in the coming weeks, with more campaign travel expected, but it appears he is not going to be on the trail this coming weekend — even with early voting already underway in a number of states and launching in the key swing state of Nevada this weekend. The White House schedule has Biden spending the weekend working from his Rehoboth, Del., vacation home.

Polling has shown abortion policy to be among the priorities for voters ahead of next month’s midterm elections, but it hasn’t been eclipsing economic issues like ongoing inflation as the top issue. A late September poll from Monmouth University, for instance, found inflation as the issue most likely to be rated either extremely or very important by those surveyed (82 percent), with 56 percent putting abortion in one of those two categories.

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