Top Democrats' response to abortion ruling sparks frustration within party

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Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent interview with CNN has highlighted frustration with the Democratic leadership’s response to abortion rights being eliminated for millions of Americans, with some in the party calling for more urgent measures to be taken after the ruling.

On Friday the Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued a ruling in a Mississippi abortion case in which it repealed Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent establishing the right to an abortion. President Biden spoke hours after the ruling, calling it a “sad day for the court and a sad day for the country,” and said, “This fall, Roe is on the ballot.”

President Biden stands at a microphone.
President Biden speaks at the White House on June 24, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

His language echoed that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said, “A woman’s right to choose, reproductive freedom, is on the ballot in November” at her own Friday press conference and also read a poem. Harris repeated that in her interview, which aired Tuesday on CNN.

“You’re saying now the president said that this fall, Roe is on the ballot,” asked reporter Dana Bash. “But what do you say to Democratic voters who argue, ‘Wait a minute, we worked really hard to elect a Democratic president and vice president, a Democrat-led House, a Democrat-led Senate — do it now’?”

“But do what now? What now?” asked Harris, who said they did not have the votes.

Due to a lack of agreement among the 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, the legislative filibuster that requires 60 votes for most bills to move forward remains in place. While Biden had called for a work-around of the filibuster to pass voting rights and the Senate made a special carve-out to raise the debt ceiling with 50 votes in December, the White House has declined to call for its removal for the purpose of reproductive rights.

Vice President Kamala Harris sits for an interview.
Vice President Kamala Harris during an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday. (CNN via Twitter)

“President Biden told my colleague Anderson Cooper he would be OK with eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights and ‘maybe more,’” asked Bash. “Would you support eliminating the filibuster in order to pass federal legislation for abortion rights?”

“Right now, given the current composition of the Senate, the votes aren’t there,” replied Harris.

“But would you use the bully pulpit to say, ‘Yes, I support it?’” asked Bash.

“Well, here’s the thing. I understand what the — why you are asking the question, but the reality of it is we don’t get to really answer that in terms of whether it happens or not if we don’t have the numbers in the Senate,” Harris said. “And, again, that’s why I keep coming back to the importance of an election that is only 130-odd days away, because it really does matter.”

Other Democrats have been pushing for more immediate action to be taken. In a letter by Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Patty Murray of Washington, more than 30 Democratic senators called on Biden to take “bold action to protect the right to an abortion.”

A woman hugs her daughter during an abortion rights protest. Demonstrators behind them hold signs reading: Vote extremes out.
Mitzi Rivas, left, hugs daughter Maya Iribarren during an abortion rights protest at City Hall in San Francisco on June 24. (Josie Lepe/AP)

“As extremist judges and Republican politicians intensify their efforts to strip Americans of their basic reproductive freedoms, you can demonstrate to the country and women everywhere that you will do everything in your power to fight back,” read the letter. “With each day that passes, this crisis will only worsen.”

Among the suggestions put forth in the letter were increasing access to medication abortion, providing resources for those traveling to other states to seek care, protecting personal data that might be used in prosecuting abortion, and using federal property to offer reproductive health services.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., has called for the White House to declare the ruling a “public health emergency” and also suggested the use of federal land and facilities to provide abortions in states where the procedure is now banned.

When asked about the possibility of using federal land for the procedures by CNN, Harris replied, “I mean, it’s not right now what we are discussing.”

Rep. Cori Bush stands outside the Capitol holding a sign that reads: End the filibuster. Protect women’s reproductive freedom.
Rep. Cori Bush at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on May 10. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that the proposal was “well intentioned” but that it “could actually put women and providers at risk” of being prosecuted. She added the administration was “looking at an array of other options” to respond.

The frustration is exacerbated by the fact that the ruling did not come as a surprise. Following December’s oral arguments in the case, the consensus from observers and court analysts was that Roe was likely to be overturned. At the beginning of May, Politico published a leaked draft ruling from the conservative majority showing that barring a change in heart from the justices, those observers were correct about the removal of abortion rights.

“[Biden] made a strong statement the day of. I would have liked to see some more specific actions rolled out,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Politico. “We all knew this was coming.”

The anger extends beyond the White House. Following the ruling, the Senate Judiciary Committee — chaired by Dick Durbin, a member of the Democratic leadership — said it would be holding a hearing “to explore the grim reality of a post-Roe America.” However, that hearing would not take place until July, following the chamber’s scheduled Independence Day vacation.

Rep. James Clyburn, a member of the House Democratic leadership and close ally of Biden, was blasted Friday for calling the ruling “anticlimactic” and saying he still needed time to read the decision, which was very similar to the one leaked in May.

Representative James Clyburn speaks at a press conference.
Rep. James Clyburn at a Congressional Black Caucus press conference on Jan. 12. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

“It’s a little anticlimactic, I think we all expected this,” Clyburn told USA Today. “And I’m hopeful, you know I have to read the decision to see exactly the extent to which we can move legislatively to respond to it.”

In a viral moment typifying the response, a protester opposing the court’s decision explained her frustration in a Saturday MSNBC interview.

“I received a text message from Joe Biden’s campaign yesterday saying that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe versus Wade and that it was my responsibility to then rush $15 to the Democratic national party,” said Zoe Warren in a clip that’s been viewed more than 6 million times on Twitter. “I thought that was absolutely outrageous because my rights should not be a fundraising point for them, or a campaigning point.

“They have had multiple opportunities to codify Roe into law over the past 20, 30, 40, 50 years — and they haven’t done it,” Warren continued. “If they’re going to keep campaigning on this point, they should actually do something about it.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., posted the video and wrote, “We have been sounding the alarm about this for a long time. Some may want to go after the messenger, but we simply cannot make promises, hector people to vote, and then refuse to use our full power when they do. We still have time to fix this and act. But we need to be brave.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands in a crowd of abortion rights activists.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to abortion rights activists in front of the Supreme Court on June 24. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

“And if you are a lawmaker who, in the time between the leak & ruling, spent more manpower on a fundraising plan than a policy response, then I highly recommend rethinking your priorities,” she continued. “Our job right now is to protect people. Doing so will drive the vote more than browbeating.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who has been discussing the ruling in a number of formats — on a bullhorn outside the Supreme Court, on Instagram and in interviews with “Meet the Press” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — then listed a number of possible options and wrote, “We can do it! We can at least TRY.”

The criticism of the administration predates the muddied response to Roe being overturned. In April, Sen. Warren told CNN, “I think we’re gonna be in real trouble if we don’t get up and deliver.

“I am glad to talk about what we’ve done, obviously, and I think the president deserves real credit, but it’s not enough,” Warren said. “We’ve got less than 200 days until the election and American families are hurting. Our job, while we are here in the majority, is to deliver on behalf of those families.”

Ocasio-Cortez echoed those sentiments in a March interview with New York magazine.

“If the president does pursue and start to govern decisively using executive action and other tools at his disposal, I think we’re in the game,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “But if we decide to just kind of sit back for the rest of the year and not change people’s lives — yeah, I do think we’re in trouble. So I don’t think that it’s set in stone. I think that we can determine our destiny here.”