Senate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law

Senate Republicans are scrambling to distance themselves from a harsh new Alabama law that bans nearly all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest, and carries a penalty of up to 99 years in prison for anyone performing the procedure.

Most GOP senators are trying their best to steer clear of the firestorm, arguing it’s a state-level issue that doesn’t involve Congress.

But the controversial law will undoubtedly stoke the abortion debate heading into the 2020 elections.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMaine House speaker announces challenge to Collins Senate seat GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (Maine), who is up for reelection next year in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate Trump says he's not prepared to lose in 2020 MORE won in 2016, is taking the lead in slamming the Alabama statute as “very extreme” and a “terrible law.”

“I’m very much opposed to the Alabama law,” Collins told The Hill. “I think it’s completely inconsistent with Roe v. Wade and will lead to a virtual ban on abortions in Alabama, even for victims of incest and rape.”

“I can’t imagine that any justice could find that to be consistent with the previous precedence,” she told CNN in a separate interview.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks Overnight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (Alaska), another leading Republican moderate, declined to comment on the Alabama law as she headed into a lunch meeting Thursday.

When later pressed as she headed to the Senate floor for the final vote of the week, Murkowski told reporters that she disagrees with the lack of an exception for the victims of rape or incest.

“I think you know where I come from on that. I believe that there need to be exceptions,” she said.

ADVERTISEMENT

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyGOP rep: Trump needs to retaliate against Iran to deter other hostile nations Ocasio-Cortez: McCarthy should apologize to migrant children separated from their parents Lawmakers warn of 'grave situation' after drone shot down MORE (R-Calif.) raised the same concern.

“I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, and that’s what I’ve voted on,” McCarthy told reporters at a press conference, noting that such exceptions are in the GOP platform.

“It goes further than I believe, yes,” he said of the strict law.

The prohibition on abortions even in cases of rape or incest has raised for Republicans the frightening specter of a repeat of the 2012 elections, when GOP candidates’ comments on the subject cost them what were thought to be sure-win races.

Former Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock famously blew his chance to win the 2012 Indiana Senate race when he declared, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Mourdock’s comments became a flashpoint in the election and, GOP strategists believed at the time, spilled over to affect other races.

That memory was still fresh in the minds of some Senate Republicans on Thursday. 

“When Mr. Mourdock inartfully said it’s ‘God’s will’ — remember that? — in a debate, there was a hue and cry,” said Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Democratic state AGs sue to block T-Mobile-Sprint merger | House kicks off tech antitrust probe | Maine law shakes up privacy debate | Senators ask McConnell to bring net neutrality to a vote Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach Senators call on McConnell to bring net neutrality rules to a vote MORE (R-Miss.).

Wicker, however, emphasized, “I’m very pro-life.”

“We’ll see what the courts do,” he added, referring to the Alabama law.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Congress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE, Alabama’s senior Republican senator, also distanced himself from his state’s hard-line law.

“I’m not down there,” he said Thursday. “All I know is what I’ve read.”

Shelby instead expressed his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except when the life of the mother is at risk or in cases of rape and incest.

“I’ve always supported the Hyde Amendment,” he said.

When asked if that meant he supported exceptions in cases of rape and incest, Shelby gave an affirmative response.

Senate Republicans in recent months have pushed two bills, one sponsored by Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions MORE (R-S.C.) that would protect fetuses after 20 weeks of pregnancy — the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act — and a second, sponsored by Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSwing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike House Dems move to give lawmakers a pay increase Conservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries MORE (R-Neb.) that would protect infants born after failed abortions, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

Both measures have failed to clear procedural hurdles on the Senate floor.

The Alabama law goes further than both Senate bills by prohibiting abortion at any stage of pregnancy and not allowing exceptions for rape and incest.

Graham’s 20-week abortion ban would allow for exceptions if a pregnancy is the result of rape and the woman has received medical treatment or counseling before the abortion, and if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest against a minor.

Other Republicans facing tough reelection races in 2020 dodged questions on the Alabama law.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerMcSally on Moore running for Senate again: 'This place has enough creepy old men' Hillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Senate panel advances bill to protect government devices against cyber threats MORE (R-Colo.), when approached, said he was late to a meeting and referred questions to his office. Aides to Gardner did not respond to a request for comment.

Gardner is one of two Republicans running next year in a state Clinton carried in 2016.

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyHispanic Caucus seeks to retain voice in House leadership Nikki Haley blasts Roy Moore's Senate bid: 'He does not represent our Republican Party' McSally on Moore running for Senate again: 'This place has enough creepy old men' MORE (R-Ariz.), another top Democratic target in 2020, dismissed the Alabama law as a state matter.

“That’s a state issue,” she said. “I’m focused on my work here.”

The remark drew criticism from Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights advocacy group.

“Martha McSally is wrong. This is a coordinated attack across the country by the radical right and anyone who is a part of the GOP and in a state that has similar laws that are being introduced by lawmakers needs to have an answer for that,” she said.

“Martha McSally is a federal official and the federal government has always had a role in protecting its citizens,” Hogue added.