Democrats Ready Congressional Resistance to Looming Anti-Choice Attacks
“Democrats will be completely unified under the Senate in beating back any attempts to curtail reproductive rights,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said in an email to Rewire. “It’s an issue that binds our caucus together.”
Republican President-elect Donald Trump alleged that the system was “rigged” against him, even after he won the nation’s highest office early Wednesday morning.
Now that he’s preparing to helm the executive branch, advocates for reproductive rights fear that another system, the checks and balances underscoring U.S. democracy, won’t be able to stop him from pursuing a radical anti-choice agenda.
Election Day 2016 resulted in two solidly anti-choice branches of the federal government, and Trump threatening to stock the third, the judiciary, with justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Congressional Democrats had expected to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from anti-choice Republican leadership and had hoped they might significantly narrow the gap in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most House and Senate Democrats remained publicly silent Wednesday, presumably grappling with how to respond to the election results. Aides who privately spoke with Rewire, however, indicated Democrats will wield whatever power they have to protect reproductive rights from the Trump administration and GOP majorities in the impending 115th Congress.
“Democrats will be completely unified under the Senate in beating back any attempts to curtail reproductive rights,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said in an email. “It’s an issue that binds our caucus together.”
Had Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the presidency, many congressional Democrats wanted her to fulfill the 2016 party platform’s promise to repeal the Hyde Amendment, even if she lacked the Republican majorities to do so. At the very least, they expected a vocal opponent of the yearly federal appropriations rider that restricts federal funding for most abortion care.
Though Trump’s murky abortion record once embraced reproductive rights, he pandered to anti-choice voters in selecting Vice President-elect Mike Pence. The current Republican governor of Indiana is behind some of the nation’s most onerous abortion restrictions and the expansion of crisis pregnancy centers, fake clinics that routinely lie to pregnant people to persuade them not to seek abortion care.
Pence during the campaign pledged that a Trump presidency would work to end legal abortion, “stand[ing] for the sanctity of life and defend[ing] the unborn from the first day we take office.”
Emboldened congressional Republicans could mount a serious attempt to codify Hyde. Fueled by reproductive justice groups like All* Above All, House Democrats in the current 114th Congress campaigned against Hyde, arguing that it places an “undue burden” on people of color and those with low incomes. They secured 124 co-sponsors from their ranks for the EACH Woman Act, which would ensure all people have access to insurance coverage for abortion care.
Republicans in the House are all but certain to reintroduce anti-choice measures in the first days of the new congressional session, as is their custom, timed to align with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. They almost immediately pushed through legislation codifying Hyde in the 114th Congress and later sought to criminalize a common medical procedure used after miscarriages and during second-trimester abortions.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) introduced an identical version of that ban in the Senate, even though most virulent abortion restrictions only make it through the House.
Will a Trump administration change that dynamic? A House Democratic aide took comfort in the fact that voters chose to quadruple the number of senators who are women of color—the very same group that anchors the reproductive justice movement and shoulders disproportionate consequences from anti-choice policies.
“Providing those sorts of perspectives” in the upper chamber will be crucial to “one, create a resistance to what we’re going to see, and two, look toward opportunities in the future,” the aide said in a phone interview.
The Senate’s new women of color are all pro-choice Democrats: Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California; Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the House member representing Illinois’ 8th district; and Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s former attorney general.
Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, is no stranger to fighting for reproductive rights. Her office was among the first to investigate the Center for Medical Progress and the anti-choice front group’s leader, David Daleiden, following the group’s series of deceptively edited videos attempting to smear Planned Parenthood. The videos continue to serve as the basis for the House’s “McCarthyesque” Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives—proceedings that could cost taxpayers up to $1.2 million.
Women of color notched additional historic wins in the 2016 elections. Ilhan Omar became the first Somali American to be elected as a state legislator and the first Somali-American woman to be elected to public office in the United States when she won her race in Minnesota.
And voters sent several women of color—Rep.-elect Lisa Blunt Rochester (DE), progressive state Sen. Pramila Jayapal (WA), and Stephanie Murphy (FL), all pro-choice Democrats—to the House.
“The people who won are progressive,” the House Democratic aide said, name-checking Murphy. “Democrats that are picking up these seats are Democrats that are going to be with us on these issues. They’re not those Blue Dogs that … aren’t there on the reproductive justice agenda.”
The aide said that the modest pickups of Republican seats mean “that our margins should improve in the committees—for Hyde, specifically, we might get another Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.”
Appropriations will yet again become the battleground for many fights around reproductive rights, according to All* Above All Co-Director Destiny Lopez. House Republicans in 2016 used the fiscal year 2017 Labor, Health, and Human Services funding bill as a vehicle to gut Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants and Title X family planning services for people with low incomes. They also hijacked the National Defense Authorization Act, leading to an ongoing, partisan House-Senate deadlock over “sweeping taxpayer-funded discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, and reproductive health-care decisions about contraception and abortion care.
“So much of this comes to a head in the budgeting process,” Lopez told Rewire in a phone interview. “We will need to, as a community, also be very clear with the new administration where we stand vis-à-vis the President’s budget and then work with the House and Senate on their budgets to ensure that our voice is heard and we provide that shield where we should.”
Democrats hope to eventually win back control of the House and Senate, even though the 2018 election landscape, Politico reported, will include five members of Congress who will have to defend seats in “ruby red” states. Much of the party’s work toward that goal will converge with safeguarding reproductive rights over the next two years, the House Democratic aide said.
Fighting for reproductive justice and related issues, the aide said, “puts us … into a place where we have to really double down on our investments.”
“We have two options,” the aide continued. “We can either curl in a hole and sob, or we can strap on our armor and get to work.”
The fighting spirit was similarly alive and well among reproductive rights and justice groups regrouping after the election.
“We need to continue to educate the public about the impact of what a Trump presidency will do and what impact it will have on our communities, especially folks of color,” Lopez said. “We’ve got to continue to take our case directly to the American people and really build our movement and build our base like never before.”
Reproductive justice groups have and will always organize on the ground, she said. “We need to do that, and we need to continue to stand with folks fighting for racial justice, fair wages, environmental justice, tribal sovereignty. Now more than ever, [if] this election tells us nothing, it is that if we do not stand at the intersections … we will lose again and again and our communities will ultimately be impacted.”
Kierra Johnson, executive director of the pro-choice advocacy group URGE and member of All* Above All’s steering committee, echoed the same sentiment in a phone interview. Johnson testified before one of Rep. Trent Franks’ (R-AZ) House judiciary subcommittee hearings this year pushing back against racially biased anti-abortion myths. She’s now ready to stand against whatever comes out of the Trump administration.
“He made it clear that he was going to wage war on women and on issues of abortion rights and sexual health and bodily autonomy,” she said. “We know we’ve got a fight ahead of us, and we’re committed to engaging in it. We’re going to work like hell to continue to move the needle on repealing Hyde, and we’re going to be even more ferocious in our fight for justice at the state level.”