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.

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Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December Republicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (Maine), who is up for reelection next year in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump escalates fight against mail-in voting Sunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase The Electoral College is not democratic — nor should it be 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 MurkowskiRepublicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead GOP pulls support from California House candidate over 'unacceptable' social media posts 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 WickerSenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day Hillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump threatens coronavirus funds for states easing voting 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 ShelbyTop Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps 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 GrahamSenate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races Schumer dubs GOP 'conspiracy caucus' amid Obama-era probes 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 SasseHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research On The Money: GOP senators heed Fed chair's call for more relief | Rollout of new anti-redlining laws spark confusion in banking industry | Nearly half of American households have lost employment income during pandemic 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 GardnerPass the Primary Care Enhancement Act The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden seeks to tamp down controversy over remarks about black support OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues 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 McSallyWhere Biden, Trump stand in key swing states Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races Why Trump, GOP are running into trouble in Arizona 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.