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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 CollinsSusan Collins says systemic racism isn't 'a problem' in Maine Biden, Cunningham hold narrow leads in North Carolina: poll GOP sees path to hold Senate majority MORE (Maine), who is up for reelection next year in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Harris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: report The Hill's Campaign Report: What the latest polling says about the presidential race | Supreme Court shoots down GOP attempt to block NC mail ballot extension 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 MurkowskiAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Bitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election 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 McCarthyMcCarthy urges networks not to call presidential race until 'every polling center has closed' House Republicans slated to hold leadership election on Nov. 17 Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire 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 WickerThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states Hillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Tech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing 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 ShelbyWorking together to effectively address patient identification during COVID-19 Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag | Company layoffs mount as pandemic heads into fall | Initial jobless claims drop to 837,000 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 GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Election night could be a bit messy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states Late donor surges push election spending projections to new heights 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 SasseTrump looks to shore up support in Nebraska GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg President Trump: To know him is to 'No' him 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 GardnerDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in 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 McSallyTrump fights for battleground Arizona Pence seeks to lift GOP in battle for Senate Activists project 'Trump failed us' onto Arizona mountain 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.