House Republicans are abandoning a years-long push by their party to pass a federal abortion ban and are exploring other ways to advance their anti-abortion agenda – a remarkable shift that underscores how the GOP is wrestling with an issue that has become a political landmine for their party.
In interviews with dozens of Republicans, the vast majority – even among the staunchest opponents of abortion– rejected the idea of Congress pursuing a national ban and said leadership has no plans on the horizon for it to be a centerpiece of their agenda, despite passing federal restrictions on the procedure in previous years when they were in power.
Republicans say there’s a practical reason for their change in stance: After Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer, they argue that the question of whether to ban abortion is now best left to the states – a position that effectively, and perhaps conveniently, parks congressional Republicans on the sidelines of the national debate.
“You know, it works through committee, the Supreme Court has made that decision, it goes to the states, and states will take up that issue,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said at a recent press conference when asked by CNN whether the House GOP will move any legislation on the matter.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of GOP leadership who has previously voted for abortion bans, expressed a similar sentiment: “I am proud of the votes I cast … but I don’t think it is appropriate for us now after Roe has been overruled to do this from Washington, D.C.”
Behind the scenes, Republicans acknowledge that the abortion ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, hurt the GOP in the midterm elections and they’re worried about a similar backlash in 2024 if they embrace a federal ban now that they’re in power.
It’s an eye-popping pivot for a party that has spent the last five decades ingratiating itself with the religious right, promising to use every lever of government to advance the anti-abortion cause. But it reflects a growing divide in the movement itself as advocates face a new chapter after Roe v. Wade was overturned, where states are serving as the test labs for laws rather than Congress.
There is a political risk, however, in letting states be in the driver’s seat. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban earlier this month and other states have outright banned the procedure, while a legal fight is playing out in the courts about whether women should continue to have access to a commonly used abortion pill. That’s fueling fears over whether these developments could be a drag on the entire Republican ticket next year, regardless of how hard congressional Republicans try to avoid questions about the matter.
GOP Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina – who represents a swing district and has been vocal about what she calls her party’s failure to effectively message on abortion – argued it’s not enough for Republicans to simply ignore the issue. She is pushing for legislation to expand access to birth control and speed up law enforcement’s backlog of rape kits in an effort to show voters the GOP cares about protecting women’s health care. GOP leadership is open to bringing legislation to the floor on the latter issue, according to Republican sources, if it can make it through the committee process.
“You can be pro-life and you can be pro-woman. The two are not mutually exclusive,” Mace told reporters. “We will not win the popular vote in ’24 if we continue down this path of extremism.”
But not every Republican agrees. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the leading sponsor of a national 15-week abortion ban, is calling on his colleagues to have the “courage” to take up his legislation, exposing the lingering divisions in the GOP over the hot-button issue.
“I hope the Republican Party can muster the courage to oppose late-term abortion like we have done in the past. My legislation is a good place to start,” he said in a statement. “Like always, it includes exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother. The Republican Party must be the party which values, cherishes, and protects life.”
‘The states are the center of gravity on all of these debates’
When Republicans controlled the House, they passed The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, in 2012, 2015, and 2017.
After Roe was overturned last summer, the bill’s lead sponsor – Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey – said he planned to make the legislation even more restrictive by lowering it to 15 weeks. The idea attracted support from top Republicans, including McCarthy, at the time, though leadership never specifically committed to putting on the bill on the floor.
But after the midterms produced a slimmer-than-expected majority, there now appears to be little appetite inside the House GOP for such a bill. Smith has yet to reintroduce his legislation in this session of Congress, and even when he does, sources say, leadership has no intention of putting it on the floor. And it’s clear that some of the party’s most vulnerable members would be uncomfortable with, if not outright opposed to, such a bill.
New York freshman GOP Rep. Mike Lawler, who flipped his district from Democratic control and helped deliver the Republican majority, said he does not support a federal abortion ban but was also critical of Democrats’ position on the issue.
“I think the extremes in both parties are wrong on this. Most Americans believe that there is a reasonable time period, and it generally falls in the first trimester,” Lawler told CNN. “When you look at this issue, most people want reasonableness and they want a rational discussion on it.”
Rep. David Valadao of California, one of the 18 Republicans who represents a Biden-won district, sought to avoid the subject altogether. “No comment,” he said when asked about Florida’s six-week ban.
GOP Rep. Don Bacon, whose Nebraska district also voted for Biden, told CNN, “The states are the center of gravity on all of these debates. I think that’s what Dobbs made possible.”
Conservative lawmakers shared a similar view.
Rep. Troy Nehls, a Republican from Texas, told CNN: “it’s up to the states,” when asked about a national ban. Freshman GOP Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida agreed, saying, “I think it’s a states’ rights decision. I’m personally pro-life.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, said: “The result of the Dobbs decision is that decisions about abortion will be made at the state level by the voters.”
And Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri who identifies as “100% pro-life” and signed on last year to a bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks, argued that Congress needs to be sensitive to where the American public is on the issue and that a six-week ban doesn’t have that kind of support.
“My own view? I wish there weren’t abortions except for rape, incest and life of the mother, but do I think we should impose that ban at that level here now? I don’t, because that is not the national consensus,” Hawley said. “Voters are weighing in in state after state. Let’s let them do that unless there is a really broad consensus.”
Their position is in line with that of former President Donald Trump, who also recently called abortion a state issue – a comment that prompted the ire of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which is pushing for presidential nominees to endorse a 15-week ban.
Cornyn touched on the confusion after last summer’s court ruling, saying, “I think there is some confusion among the pro-life community as to what exactly we were asking for. In Roe versus Wade, we were asking that we go get the authority back to the states, and now people want to continue the fight here in Washington, and I disagree with that approach.”
Republicans turn to ‘incremental” anti-abortion goals
In the absence of pursuing a federal ban, and under pressure from powerful anti-abortion groups, Republicans have sought to deliver on the issue in other ways.
Earlier this year, the House passed two messaging bills related to abortion: one that would require health care providers to try to preserve the life of an infant in the rare case that a fetus is born alive during or after an attempted abortion, something that is already required, and another that condemns “recent attacks on pro-life facilities, groups and churches.”
Both measures, which are going nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, were seen as low-hanging fruit.
Meanwhile, a narrow bill prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortions that House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana promised would get a vote in the first two weeks of the Republican majority has still not been scheduled.
Now, lawmakers are largely turning their energy to the appropriations process, and specifically the efforts to reenact the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funds from being used for most abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger.
While the amendment is annually included in spending bills, groups like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and the National Right to Life Committee are pushing GOP leadership to put a bill on the floor that would make the provision permanent.
The National Right to Life Committee said it is in regular communication with House Republican leadership about possible legislative efforts and educational needs on the issue.
“What we’re working on right now is primarily reacquainting members with the abortion issue after the Dobbs decision. This is a very dramatically different landscape,” the group’s federal legislative director, Jennifer Popik, told CNN.
Popik, who characterized her organization’s goals as “incremental,” acknowledged that after the Dobbs decision, “everybody became sort of concerned” about what options were no longer available.
E.V. Osment, vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, is advising Republican lawmakers to not shy away from the topic, arguing it can be a political winner for them if they go on offense and highlight exactly where they stand.
“It is imperative that Republicans stand up and speak out on this and not let their opponents define them,” Osment said. “Republican candidates excel when they expose their opponents’ no-limits approach to abortion.”
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.