When it comes to protecting abortion rights, Democrats want Joe Biden to get aggressive. And fast.
Frustration is building among liberals over what some see as a slow executive response from the president, despite weeks to prepare following POLITICO’s publication of a draft majority opinion forecasting the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. White House officials contend that things are more complicated than they seem, but that’s doing little to turn down the temperature in the party.
“He made a strong statement the day of. I would have liked to see some more specific actions rolled out,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We all knew this was coming.”
Jayapal spent part of Monday in meetings with Biden officials and encouraged them on the sidelines to do more, urging a look at further agency-level moves to protect abortion access — the sort of action that White House aides say is coming soon, albeit without specifics so far.
It’s not a full Democratic pile-on yet, even as the party’s base rages after the conservative-leaning high court stripped a nationwide right to abortion. That’s in part because Democrats recognize both that Biden’s hands are somewhat tied and that the dynamics in Congress don’t allow a robust response. Nonetheless, lawmakers like Jayapal and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are pressing the president for a more urgent counterattack.
Among their ideas: covering expenses for federal employees who need to travel to receive abortion services, helping pay for out-of-state abortions, enshrining abortion access for active-duty military and opening up federal lands to abortion counseling and procedures. Some Democrats are even examining whether tribal governments could help provide abortion services.
“We need our president at this moment to step up and remind everyone that we Democrats don’t believe the government should be making a decision about whether to continue a pregnancy,” Warren said in an interview on Monday.
Biden aides, meanwhile, say they want to go on offense, but their options are limited.
The White House said a number of federal agencies would roll out new abortion protections in the days ahead but did not supply details on Monday. Aides also whipped up a public outreach campaign and directed surrogates, including Vice President Kamala Harris, to fan out on television to reassure Democrats.
Biden has highlighted his executive powers to protect abortion medication availability by mail and the right to interstate travel for an abortion — steps that the rest of his party have cheered.
But his team argues there are sharp limits to his executive powers to protect abortion access. Administration officials stress the White House needs to mount a public response that’s realistic about its limits to avoid doing long-term political or practical harm to their goals. That approach may not alleviate Hill Democrats’ concerns about the lack of a coordinated, direct pushback to Roe’s collapse.
And the flurry of Democratic demands for quick action sparked a degree of annoyance in the White House, where aides say they’ve spent the last two months stress-testing ideas for blunting the ruling’s impact.
A White House official warned that opening abortion clinics on federal land like Warren suggests would be “well-intentioned, [but] it could put women and providers at risk” by opening women and providers to potential prosecution.
Many Democrats are still calling on Biden to push the limits of his power to protect as many women as possible. Twenty Black female Democrats also sent a letter asking Biden to immediately declare a public health emergency: “We must act urgently as if lives depend on it because they do.”
In a Saturday letter led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Democratic leader, 34 Senate Democrats urged Biden to “take every step available to your administration, across federal agencies, to help women access abortions and other reproductive health care.”
“I want the administration to look at all of its options here,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who signed the letter. She added, though, that she’s most focused on “making clear to the people of my state what’s on the ballot this fall.”
Sarah Godlewski, Wisconsin’s state treasurer and a Senate candidate, wants Biden to direct Medicaid to pay for out-of-state abortions and cut red tape for abortion medication availability. There are things “the president can be doing to help folks in Wisconsin right now who are no longer able to get access to abortion care,” she said. The state’s Planned Parenthood clinics temporarily suspended their abortion services.
However, the administration is also limited by the long-standing legislative provision known as the Hyde amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. That restriction, which the Democratic-controlled Congress has left intact, complicates any effort to have Medicaid fund out-of-state travel for abortions.
At the heart of the intra-party tension over abortion is a complaint Democratic lawmakers have also offered about the White House’s approach to spiking inflation: As a problem emerges and grows, they say, the White House is slow to offer guidance and taking too cautious an approach to Congress.
White House aides protest that Biden simply can’t do all that much solely by executive fiat, saying legislation would be needed. The administration has chewed over scores of executive orders, including the potential national public health emergency that Black Democrats have sought. They’ve also looked at ways the Justice Department could fight efforts to prosecute those crossing state lines to get abortions.
Any such legal support would not fully replace what Friday’s ruling took away and would surely face legal obstacles. But some Democrats say no matter what happens in the courts going forward, the White House needs to pursue those options, and more.
“Of course, there will be legal challenges,” Warren said. “But the fact that an extremist Supreme Court has taken steps that most of America believed they would never take, doesn’t mean that we back down. It means we get into the fight harder than ever.”
Preliminary plans are underway for the president to address the nation again on the matter soon after returning to Washington from business overseas, but nothing has been finalized, according to White House officials.
Democrats hope the Roe reversal will fire up their base ahead of the midterms, and the White House aims to set up a travel schedule highlighting the issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laid out Monday a series of votes the House may take on enshrining Roe and protecting privacy for those seeking abortions, aiming to create a contrast with the GOP.
Notably, both Warren and Jayapal — two high-profile progressive leaders — said that even as they lean on Biden to act now, they recognize “the real showdown is coming in November,” as the senator put it. Jayapal wants Biden to publicly call for weakening the Senate’s 60-vote requirement on the issue of abortion rights — just as he did earlier this year with voting rights.
“It would be wonderful if he would acknowledge that this is a critical right, just as voting rights are. I think we also need to just recognize, even his voice is not enough on this.” Jayapal said, adding that Democrats need “two more senators” willing to weaken the filibuster for abortion rights.
For all of Biden’s willingness to use his voice since Friday, though, the White House had little concrete ready to roll out when the decision came down. After weekly meetings that drew senior Biden aides, state officials and abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, the administration’s lack of specific moves over the past 48 hours has surprised some legal experts and allies.
“It’s a shocking silence,” one outside adviser said roughly an hour after Friday’s ruling.
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