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In an election year push on reproductive rights, Senate holds a test vote on access to contraception

By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
Published: June 5, 2024, 8:04am

WASHINGTON (AP) — In an election year effort to put Republicans on record on reproductive rights issues, Senate Democrats are holding a vote Wednesday to move forward with legislation designed to protect women’s access to contraception.

The test vote comes as the Senate has abandoned hopes for doing serious bipartisan legislation before the election and as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats are trying to instead spotlight issues that they believe can help them win the presidency and keep the Senate in November. A similar vote on ensuring nationwide access to in vitro fertilization could come as soon as next week.

Neither bill is likely to pass the Senate, where Democrats would need 60 votes, much less the Republican-led House. But Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats will “put reproductive freedoms front and center before this chamber, so that the American people can see for themselves who will stand up to defend their fundamental liberties.”

The effort comes as Democrats worry that reproductive rights will be further threatened after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion two years ago and as they continue to see that access as one of their most potent election-year issues. President Joe Biden’s campaign sees reproductive rights as a key path to winning undecided voters, especially women.

Minority Republicans scoffed, saying the political messaging votes were unserious distractions from legislation they would like to vote on. “I expect we will see a lot more show votes this summer,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, on Tuesday.

Still, Wednesday’s vote on whether to move forward with the legislation could put some GOP senators in a tough spot. While most Republicans would oppose any restrictions on contraception, they are unlikely to back Democrats’ political push.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the few Republican senators who supports abortion rights, said Monday that she is likely to vote to move forward on the legislation but that she would want the bill to be amended to include more religious liberty protections. “It is clearly a messaging attempt and not a serious attempt in itself,” she said.

The Senate push on reproductive access this year differs from bipartisan legislation passed in 2022 that would protect same-sex marriage amid concerns that the court could go after the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide. A vote on that bill was delayed until after that year’s midterm elections to try and avoid political complications, and 12 Republicans eventually supported it, sending it to Biden’s desk.

Since Republicans took the House majority last year, though, Congress has moved on few legislative items that were not immediately urgent or that did not face deadlines for expiration. Schumer has said repeatedly that he would like to move on bills to improve rail safety, lower the cost of prescription drugs and improve online safety for children, among other bipartisan legislation. But most of those bills have stalled in the divided Congress as some Republicans and Democrats have been less willing to work together in an election year.

Instead, Schumer has focused the Senate on judicial nominations and political messaging bills, including a repeat vote last month on a border security bill that Republicans had already rejected in February after months of bipartisan negotiations. Democrats who have faced intense criticism over the border issue have hoped that they can blunt that issue somewhat by highlighting that legislation. But Republicans have said it did not go far enough.

Democrats seized on the contraception issue after former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, said in an interview last month that he was open to supporting restrictions on birth control. He quickly reversed course and said that he “has never and never will” advocate to restrict that access.

Contraception has been increasingly entangled in the abortion debate in some conservative states, however. In Missouri, a women’s health care bill was stalled for months over concerns about expanding insurance coverage for birth control after some lawmakers falsely conflated birth control with medication abortion. In Arizona, Republicans unanimously blocked a Democratic effort to protect the right to contraception access. Tennessee Republicans blocked a bill that would have clarified that the state’s abortion ban would not affect contraceptive care or fertility treatments.

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And in Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed bills from the Democratic-controlled Legislature that would have protected the right to contraception earlier this year. He said he supports the right to birth control but that “we cannot trample on the religious freedoms of Virginians.”

The Senate bill would make it federal law that an individual has the right to obtain contraceptives and to “engage in contraception,” and that health providers can provide them.

The legislation designed to protect in vitro fertilization comes after Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled frozen embryos can be considered children under state law earlier this year, causing several clinics to suspend IVF treatments. The state later enacted a law providing legal protections for IVF clinics, but Democrats have argued that Congress should act to guarantee nationwide access to reproductive care to try and prevent courts from making those decisions.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said that she believes Americans “will be watching closely” as Democrats force Republicans to vote on contraception Wednesday.

“Senate Democrats believe every woman has a right to contraception — whether it’s the pill, Plan-B, or an IUD — what could be more common sense and more uncomplicated?” Murray said on Tuesday. “So tomorrow, every single Senate Republican will be put on the record about where they stand.”