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CT Democrats in D.C. explore different paths to protecting abortion access

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PHOTO COURTESY OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD
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A Planned Parenthood rally takes place in Stamford, which is part of U.S. Rep. Jim Himes' district.

Connecticut Democrats in Washington are all aligned on the same priority: protecting access to abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. But some in the delegation see different paths to securing those protections.

Every member of the state’s delegation has supported the dual pushes in the House and Senate to pass bills protecting abortion as a constitutional right, allowing women to freely travel for the procedure and strengthening support for abortion providers. But Connecticut lawmakers are also aware that a split Senate will likely prevent any of these bills from getting to President Joe Biden’s desk, contributing to more frustration among the party’s base.

To address constituents’ concerns, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, floated an idea at a private Democratic caucus meeting last Wednesday about voting on individual components of a bill that would broadly protect abortion access. He suggested voting separately on provisions that would preserve abortion rights for women whose lives are in danger and those who are survivors of rape and incest. Himes’ remarks at the meeting and proposal were first reported by Politico.

The congressman said the party’s suggestions for messaging when they’re back home in their districts — including blaming the Senate as the cause for inaction and telling people to vote for more Democrats — are “pretty ineffective.”

“This grew out of the thought that the recommendations we were getting were landing flat in my district. Let’s take advantage of the alignment [and] the opportunity to save some lives,” Himes told the Connecticut Mirror in a Sunday interview.

Others in the delegation, however, want to stay the course and use a broader approach to fight for access for all women.

When asked about Himes’ strategy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he’s skeptical of voting on smaller pieces of legislation and, like some others in his party, worries this will let Republicans off the hook.

“Generally, the slimmed-down versions of protecting women’s reproductive rights fail to do the job,” Blumenthal told CT Mirror during a Friday event with abortion rights advocates. “Proposed alternatives are filled with gaps that swallow the protections. These exceptions swallow the rule. I’m very leery of so-called substitutes that give Republicans a pass.”

Himes, who spoke with some senior staffers for House leadership, acknowledged the pushback he’s gotten from colleagues who say they won’t “slice and dice” reproductive rights. While his proposal won’t translate to legislation, he believes that doing something is better than nothing.

“There are many people in the Congress … fighting this in the trenches a lot more than me,” Himes said. “I’m just reflecting back the incredibly strong message I’ve heard from my constituents.”

Regardless of the relatively minor differences on messaging, Connecticut Democrats are forging ahead on all the legislation coming up in both chambers of Congress. Abortion remains legal in Connecticut, which has a “safe harbor” law permitting women to travel to get an abortion in the state.

The entire five-member House delegation on Friday once again voted for legislation —the Women’s Health Protection Act — that would codify the protections once offered under Roe v. Wade into federal law. They all previously supported a similar version of that bill last September, though it has since stalled in the divided Senate.

Connecticut lawmakers also voted Friday for a second bill that allows women who reside in states where abortion is now illegal to freely travel out of state to legally have the procedure. It also extends the same protections to those who are providing that care.

Over in the Senate, Democrats raised a similar bill on travel protections, but Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, blocked taking it up on Thursday. Any one senator can object when seeking to move legislation forward through a unanimous consent request. Lankford dismissed the bill, noting that “no state has banned interstate travel for adult women seeking to obtain an abortion.”

Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who are co-sponsors of the Freedom to Travel for Health Care Act of 2022, held a virtual event last week with local reproductive rights activists about the need for extra protections that go beyond Connecticut’s “safe harbor” law.

“Because of the many areas in this country where this right has been lost, we are going to see an unprecedented number of patients traveling here to get access to care,” Dr. Nicole Gavin, an OB-GYN who works with high-risk pregnancies at UConn Health, said during Friday’s event.

Blumenthal argued that a federal law could better provide support for patients, providers and employers who assist their employees in getting the procedure in another state. He added that when those seeking an abortion in Connecticut go back home, the state’s law won’t “insulate them from prosecutions there when they return.”

All Democratic bills on abortion access are facing roadblocks in a split 50-50 Senate that they narrowly control. To pass legislation, they need at least 10 GOP senators to join in order to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster and move the bill toward final passage.

Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly oppose abortion-related measures, though two GOP senators have an alternative bill that’s gotten little traction. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed legislation that similarly establishes abortion as a constitutional right but grants a religious exception.

But Democrats overall appear disinterested in any legislation that limits their priorities on abortion access.

“We’re not going to negotiate a woman’s right to choose,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said at a Thursday news conference about the GOP’s alternative bill. “There has to be a real measure that protects a woman’s right to choose.”

Even with the varying strategies, Democrats are ultimately looking for GOP accountability. And they acknowledge the deep frustrations from within their party to pass something before the November midterm elections where Democrats’ majorities are at risk.

Himes said his constituents are tired of hearing the mantra that they need to vote in the fall as the only solution to getting any movement on reproductive health. He said they want change while the party still holds a political trifecta: control of the House, Senate and White House.

“If we go into November and can’t say to the base, we tried everything and fought every battle, highlighted where congressional Republicans are,” Himes said, “we’ll get hurt.”

Lisa Hagen is the federal policy reporter in a collaboration between Connecticut Public and The Connecticut Mirror. Hagen is based in Washington, D.C., and produces stories that examine the impact of federal policy on Connecticut.

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