WASHINGTON – Upending the political debate, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a nationwide abortion ban Tuesday, sending shockwaves through both parties and igniting fresh debate on a fraught issue weeks before the midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.
Graham's own Republican Party leaders did not immediately embrace his abortion ban bill, which would prohibit the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy with rare exceptions, and has almost no chance of becoming law in the Democratic-held Congress. Democrats torched it as an alarming signal of where “MAGA” Republicans are headed if they win control of the House and Senate in November.
"America’s got to make some decisions," Graham said at a news conference at the Capitol.
The South Carolina Republican said that rather than shying away from the Supreme Court's ruling this summer overturning Roe v. Wade's nearly 50-year right to abortion access, Republicans are preparing to fight to make a nationwide abortion ban federal law.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, we’re going nowhere,” the senator said while flanked by female advocates from the anti-abortion movement. “We welcome the debate. We welcome the vote in the United States Senate as to what America should look like in 2022.”
Reaction was swift, fierce and unwavering from Democrats who viewed Graham's legislation as an extreme example of the far-right's hold on the GOP, and as a political gift of self-inflicted pain for Republican candidates now having to answer questions about an abortion ban heading toward the midterm elections.
“A nationwide abortion ban — that’s the contrast between the two parties, plain and simple,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington who is in her own fight for reelection, said Republicans “want to force” women to stay pregnant and deliver babies.
“To anyone who thought they were safe, here is the painful reality,” she said. “Republicans are coming for your rights.”
The sudden turn of events comes in a razor-tight election season as Republicans hoping to win control of Congress are struggling to recapture momentum, particularly after the Supreme Court's landmark decision sparked deep concerns among some voters, with signs of female voters peeling away from the GOP.
In a midterm election where the party out of the White House traditionally holds an advantage, even more so this year with President Joe Biden's lackluster approval ratings, the Democrats have regained their own momentum pushing back the GOP candidates in House and Senate races.
Tuesday's announcement set up an immediate split screen with Biden and Democrats poised to celebrate their accomplishments in a ceremony at the White House after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and Republicans forced to answer for Graham's proposed abortion ban.
"This bill is wildly out of step with what Americans believe," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
"While President Biden and Vice President Harris are focused on the historic passage of the Inflation Reduction Act to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, health care, and energy – and to take unprecedented action to address climate change — Republicans in Congress are focused on taking rights away from millions of women," Jean-Pierre said.
Graham's legislation has almost zero chance of becoming law, but it elevates the abortion issue at a time when other Republicans would prefer to focus on inflation, border security and Biden's leadership.
The Republican bill would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or risk to the physical health of the mother. Graham said it would put the U.S. on par with many countries in Europe and around the world.
In particular, Graham's bill would leave in place state laws that are more restrictive. That provision is notable because many Republicans have argued that the Supreme Court's ruling leaves the abortion issue for the states to decide. But the legislation from the Republicans makes it clear states are only allowed to decide the issue if their abortion bans are more stringent.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is one seat away from majority control, declined to embrace Graham's legislation.
“I think every Republican senator running this year in these contested races has an answer as to how they feel about the issue," McConnell said. He said most GOP senators prefer having the issue dealt with by the states, rather than at the federal level. "So I leave it up to our candidates who are quite capable of handling this issue to determine for them what their response is.”
The Democratic senators most at risk this fall and other Democratic candidates running for Congress appeared eager to fight against Graham's proposed nationwide abortion ban.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, tweeted that Graham “and every other anti-choice extremist can take a hike.”
Her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, has during his campaign insisted that abortion is protected in the state constitution, which it may no longer be under this bill.
In Colorado, another Democrat up for reelection, Sen. Michael Bennet, tweeted: “A nationwide abortion ban is outrageous. "
Bennet pledged "to defend a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, no matter what ZIP code she lives in. We cannot afford to let the Republicans take back the Senate.”
His opponent in Colorado, Republican Joe O’Dea, who supports putting abortion access that had been guaranteed under Roe v. Wade into law, agreed, in part: “A Republican ban is as reckless and tone deaf as is Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s hostility to considering any compromise on late term abortion, parental notification or conscience protections for religious hospitals.”
The races for control of Congress are tight in the split 50-50 Senate, where one seat determines majority control, and in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi can afford to lose only a few seats.
Pelosi called Graham's bill the “clearest signal of extreme MAGA Republicans’ intent to criminalize women’s health freedom in all 50 states and arrest doctors for providing basic care. Make no mistake: if Republicans get the chance, they will work to pass laws even more draconian than this bill.”
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill tried to hold the party together amid the differences.
“I think that what it’s attempting to do is probably change the conversation a little bit,” said Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and second-ranking party leader.
“Democrats are implying that all Republicans are for a ban without exceptions, and that’s not true,” Thune said. “There are Republicans who are in favor of restrictions. And I think this is an attempt to at least put something out there that reflects the views of a lot of Republicans who are in favor of some restrictions.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington and Nick Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.