Top Democratic leaders, who have failed to deliver on their promises on everything from climate action to student debt, didn’t seem prepared for Monday night’s bombshell report that the Supreme Court is preparing to revoke abortion rights nationwide. The ruling would strike down nearly half a century of judicial precedent, in the latest escalation of the GOP’s decades-long assault on reproductive rights. The next morning, New York Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tweeted: “Democrats: We’re angry and hurt, I know. But it’s not about filibuster, size of the court or what the Senate hasn’t passed. It’s about Republicans, not us. We can save our freedoms. But, it’s November, stupid.” Despite their forceful rhetoric, not to mention their control of the House, Senate, and presidency, Democrats say it’s up to voters to vote even harder.
The truth is, congressional Democrats could immediately eliminate the filibuster to enshrine the protections of Roe v. Wade into national law, as many progressives have been calling for. Less than an hour after the news broke, Senator Bernie Sanders and other left-leaning lawmakers demanded that their colleagues pass legislation codifying the landmark decision. But President Joe Biden, for his part, made clear that the social and economic consequences of such a sweeping loss of abortion access are the responsibility of the public.
“If the Court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Biden said in a statement on Tuesday. “And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November. At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice Senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe, which I will work to pass and sign into law.”
In the draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito and leaked to Politico this week, the conservative majority preliminarily voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, potentially allowing states to drastically restrict abortion rights or implement a blanket ban—a development with seismic implications and one that could upend the midterm elections. Even after the Supreme Court’s plans were revealed, top House Democrats stuck by their decision to prop up the last anti-choice Democrat in the chamber, Representative Henry Cuellar, in his competitive Texas run-off election.
Cuellar, a nine-term incumbent with deep ties to corporate America, is facing Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney and pro-choice candidate who nearly beat him in 2020, in a May 28 run-off. Last year, Cuellar was the only Democrat in the chamber to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified Roe into federal law. Cuellar defended his longtime position on Tuesday, saying in a statement that he has “always been pro-life” as a lifelong Catholic, but there “must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.” Cisneros is demanding Democratic leadership drop their support of Cuellar over his opposition to abortion, saying that the congressman “could very much be the deciding vote on the future of reproductive rights.”
Top Democrats haven’t just passively supported Cuellar either. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Texas in 2020 during the final stretch of the race to help get him over the finish line, and continues to back him—despite calling the draft opinion “an abomination, one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history.” House majority whip Jim Clyburn is heading to San Antonio today to hold a rally for Cuellar, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is still backing him as well.
“It is absolutely shameful that as millions of people across the country organize to defend abortion rights, Democratic leadership is coming to Texas specifically to campaign for the only anti-choice Democrat in the House of Representatives,” Justice Democrats candidate communications manager Usamah Andrabi told The Nation. “Democratic voters have no reason to believe that our party is doing everything they can to protect reproductive rights when Speaker Pelosi, majority leader Steny Hoyer, majority whip Jim Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries have endorsed the only Democrat to vote against codifying the constitutional right to abortion. There is no excuse for their continued support of Henry Cuellar.”
Banning abortion, in part or altogether, has never been the end game of the anti-abortion movement. Ultraconservatives want stiffer criminal penalties for anyone who seeks an abortion, and to go after birth control and even the right to same-sex marriage. And for years, Democrats have sent desperate fundraising e-mail blasts about these threats, warning that our rights are under attack and can only be protected if voters give money to the party’s candidates, campaigns, and efforts. Democrats have already raised millions of dollars in the days since the opinion leaked. But it’s worth remembering what they did the last time they had a governing trifecta. In a 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood, then-Senator Barack Obama promised to immediately codify Roe if he became president. Shortly after entering office, he abandoned the issue. At a 2009 news conference, he told reporters it was no longer his “highest legislative priority.”
“I believe that women should have the right to choose,” President Obama said. “But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on.”