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Texas’ Abortion Ban Prompts Push In Congress To Pass Federal Reproductive Rights Bill

Abortion rights advocates hold signs and participate in a “Bans Off Our Bodies” performance protest in front of the Texas State Capitol on Sept 1, 2021. The statewide protest was in response to SB 8, which would ban abortions at six weeks gestation. Michael Minasi/KUT
Abortion rights advocates hold signs and participate in a “Bans Off Our Bodies” performance protest in front of the Texas State Capitol on Sept 1, 2021. The statewide protest was in response to SB 8, which would ban abortions at six weeks gestation. Michael Minasi/KUT

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the House will take up the Women's Health Protection Act of 2021 in late September, but the bill faces steep odds in the Senate.

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will vote on a reproductive rights bill when lawmakers reconvene in Washington this month, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas’ new six-week abortion ban.

The Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. Judy Chu of California, would guarantee a pregnant person’s legal right to abortion and “permit health care providers to provide abortion services without limitations or requirements that single out the provision of abortion services.” Though the proposed legislation is expected to pass the House with a slim majority, it faces unlikely odds in the Senate.

The bill is a direct response to the new Texas law that effectively bans abortions before most women are even aware they are pregnant. Legal and reproductive health experts argue the law’s unique mechanism of enforcement, which invites the public to sue abortion providers and anyone assisting an abortion-seeker, effectively sidesteps a pregnant person’s constitutional right to an abortion established in Roe v. Wade.

While Democrats hold a majority of 50 seats in the Senate, the bill would need 60 votes to break a potential filibuster — a Senate procedure allowing members to delay or prevent votes on proposed legislation. With only two Republican senators who have previously supported abortion rights, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, there is no indication Democrats would be able to pick up eight votes across the aisle.

The push by congressional Democrats to codify Roe v. Wade is the latest in the series of federal responses to bills enacted by the Republican-controlled Texas state Legislature that have renewed calls for filibuster reform.

Texas Democrats this summer lobbied Congress to pass a sweeping federal voting rights bill that would preempt attempts by state Republicans to pass a law that would restrict voting access. In June, the U.S. House passed the For the People Act, but without the support to break a filibuster, the bill died in the Senate. Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a Texas bill that further tightens state election laws and constrains local control of elections by limiting counties’ ability to expand voting options.

“Texas has been kind of the poster child for some really dangerous legislation this year. And so I think that a lot remains to be seen with what the Senate decides to do in terms of the filibuster,” said Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat and cosponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act. “I don't know now exactly what the course will be. But I think there's a lot of discussion going on about how important it is to protect the constitutional rights of Americans.”

Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, a proponent of filibuster reform and another cosponsor of the federal abortion bill, called on Congress to ditch the Senate rule following Supreme Court’s ruling not to block the Texas abortion ban.

“Expand the court. Abolish the filibuster,” Escobar tweeted.

Still, complete elimination of the filibuster seems unlikely. To scale down or abolish the procedure, Democrats would need to secure the support of all 50 members of their caucus. And despite increasing pressure from the left, moderate Democrats Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona openly oppose filibuster reform.

A spokesperson for Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office told the Tribune that he “is opposed to nuking the legislative filibuster. And so are Democrat Senators Manchin and Sinema, whose votes [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer would need to be able to do it. So it’s not happening.”

Ahead of the Senate voting rights debate earlier this year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the administration was open to pursuing “new conversations about the path forward,” regarding the filibuster but noted the decision was ultimately up to Congress.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats put forward a compromise voting bill known as the Freedom to Vote Act, a less sweeping amalgamation of policies from both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. Following months of intraparty negotiations, it’s unclear if the Democrats’ pared down voting rights bill will weaken a potential Republican filibuster.

Despite ongoing partisan gridlock, Fletcher notes progress is not entirely out of reach for the Women’s Health Protection Act.

“It’s expected to pass the House and then the Senate remains less clear, but I think it's still possible,” Fletcher said. “I mean, we have to keep working for it.”

From The Texas Tribune.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.