The Memo

The Memo: Left’s frustration with Biden, Pelosi intensifies on abortion

Nina Turner speaks with supporters
Associated Press/Phil Long
This July 7, 2021 file photo shows Nina Turner speaking with supporters near the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections before casting her vote in Cleveland.

Progressive frustration with President Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress is at a boiling point, just days after the Supreme Court rescinded the constitutional right to abortion.

Left-wing Democrats are fuming about what they see as a lackluster and vague response from party leaders to a literal life-and-death crisis afflicting millions of Americans.

“This is a 911 moment. It doesn’t get any more 911 than this,” prominent progressive Nina Turner told this column.

“The last time I checked, the Democrats control the White House, the Senate and the House,” Turner added, “and right now they’re playing tiddlywinks. This Congress and this president are not bold enough for this moment.”

Similar views are being vented across the progressive movement, from grassroots activists and elected officials alike.

At its core, the cry from the left is simple: Where’s the plan? 

Progressives assert that Biden and Democratic congressional leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), could be taking more specific actions and offering a more detailed map of the road ahead.

The left has plenty of suggestions.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) co-wrote a New York Times op-ed over the weekend that called on Biden to declare a public health emergency to protect reproductive rights. 

They asserted that this would have the effect of “unlocking critical resources and authority that states and the federal government can use to meet the surge in demand for reproductive health services.”

Underlining the personal stakes, the two senators — ages 73 and 64, respectively — wrote: “The two of us lived in an America without Roe, and we are not going back. Not now. Not ever.”

A Washington Post reporter also tweeted Monday that Warren had called for the Biden administration to help establish outposts of Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health care organization, on the edges of national parks.

“They could put up tents, have trained personnel — and be there to help people who need it,” Warren said, according to reporter Caroline Kitchener. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Sunday tweeted seven measures Democrats could take to safeguard abortion rights. 

The New York congresswoman suggested establishing abortion clinics on federal lands, expanding the Supreme Court and repealing the Hyde amendment, which broadly prevents the use of federal funds for abortions.

So far, the calls for more assertive action have failed to win over the president. 

Biden has not budged from his opposition to expanding the Supreme Court. He has never seemed fully committed to filibuster reform. And he has remained silent about other proposals from the left, such as facilitating abortion on federal lands.

To be sure, Biden has not been entirely inactive. 

In his initial remarks at the White House responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday, he stressed that “women must remain free to travel safely to another state to seek the care they need.”

He also said he would ensure that access to contraception and to abortion pills would be “available to the fullest extent possible and that politicians cannot interfere in the decisions that should be made between a woman and her doctor.”

There are, too, legitimate arguments against measures such as expanding the Court — a move that would surely set off a high court arms race in which the bench would be constantly expanded by whichever party was in power. 

Pelosi, for her part, on Monday outlined three legislative proposals that House Democrats plan to consider. 

One would codify Roe into law, another would underpin the right to travel between states for an abortion and the third would safeguard the privacy of reproductive health data stored on apps. 

But those have done nothing to quell the frustration among progressives who assert that their party’s leaders are just too timorous.

Biden “can open federal lands for abortion. He could talk to the two most obstructionist Democrats, Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema and Sen. [Joe] Manchin, and press them to change. He could take a stand himself for abolishing the filibuster,” said Michele Weindling, electoral director for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-oriented progressive group.

“I am an organizer and I believe people are moveable,” Weindling added. “If I, as a 27-year-old here in my town of Denver, can see that, I would hope that the Democratic leadership would feel that way.”

There is, too, a serious tonal disconnect between Biden and congressional leaders on one hand and younger progressive activists and their standard-bearers, such Ocasio-Cortez, on the other.

Vincent Vertuccio, an organizer who works at the intersection of progressive movements and electoral politics, raised the issue of some congressional Democrats gathering to sing “God Bless America” near the Capitol on Friday — within earshot of the protests at the Supreme Court.

“That went immediately viral — and it didn’t go viral because people were thrilled with it,” he said. “It was people incredulous that this was the response to an American institution trashing a right.”

The split between Democratic leadership and the progressive base is crucial given that the midterm elections are little more than four months away.

Democratic leaders, including Biden, are adamant that anger at the Supreme Court’s ruling can be a galvanizing force in November. 

The left worries that the failure to do more is having just the opposite effect, disenchanting and enervating voters.

“The Republicans are playing for keeps and the Democrats are more concerned with decorum,” Turner said. “I say, forget about decorum. It is past time to play hardball with these people.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Biden Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Nina Turner Roe v. Wade Tina Smith
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