House

Abortion fight could cap Pelosi’s long, historic career

The explosive fight over the fate of Roe v. Wade has thrust Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) into the national spotlight in the familiar role of defending abortion rights — a lifelong battle for the veteran liberal lawmaker that might also prove among her last on Capitol Hill.

Pelosi, the nation’s first female Speaker, is well-versed in the divisive fight, having been a champion of women’s reproductive rights since long before her arrival in Congress more than three decades ago.

With last week’s blockbuster news that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, Pelosi is a natural fit to play a leading role in the Democratic opposition to the potential decision heading into November’s midterm elections, where Democrats are hoping the issue will drive abortion rights supporters to participate.

“The issue is on the ballot, without a doubt,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Illinois Democrat, said Monday in a phone interview.  

The protections provided by Roe remain overwhelmingly popular across the country, and some political experts predicted the Democrats’ plan to shine a bright light on the issue — and have Pelosi take a lead on the messaging — will pay dividends at the polls. With the Speaker having vowed to step down from party leadership at the end of this term, it’s a fight that could be her congressional swan song.

“It will highlight for many Democrats why more Pelosis are needed in American politics, so that issues of reproductive rights aren’t relegated to a secondary status,” said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. 

The abortion debate roared onto the national scene at the start of last week, when Politico published a draft decision in a highly anticipated case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, gauging the legality of a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks. 

Authored by the conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the ruling found that the legal foundation propping up the Roe decision was “egregiously wrong” since abortion rights bear no mention in the text of the Constitution and play no conventional role in the country’s legal heritage. Aside from Alito, the draft was endorsed by four other conservative justices, constituting a majority on the nine-member court, Politico reported. 

The ultimate impact of the abortion debate on November’s midterm results remains anyone’s guess. But the leaked Supreme Court ruling has made clear that the explosive topic will get much more attention than it would in a typical election year, regardless of the court’s final decision, which is expected in June or July. 

In a letter to Democrats on Monday, Pelosi outlined the party’s strategy for approaching the issue. At the top of the list will be a concerted effort to highlight for the public the practical ramifications if the court’s final verdict adheres to Alito’s draft.

“It is urgent and essential that we remain disciplined and focused in sharing with the American people the dangers of the Republican agenda,” Pelosi wrote. 

The hope is that the public messaging campaign will put enough voter pressure on Republicans in the Senate so that legislation codifying Roe can reach President Biden’s desk. That proposal was passed by the House last year and will receive a vote on Wednesday in the Senate, where it’s expected to fail. 

Pelosi is also warning that Alito’s reasoning overturning Roe, which hinges on a women’s right to privacy, could ultimately lead to the toppling of similar court-established rights based on the same legal argument, including rights to gay marriage and access to certain forms of contraception. 

The Speaker is also pointing to recent comments from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who left open the possibility that Republicans, if they win more power next year, might try to adopt an across-the-board federal ban on abortion, rather than merely leaving the decision to individual states, as the Alito draft would do. 

“Republicans have made clear that their goal will be to seek to criminalize abortion nationwide,” Pelosi wrote. 

Republicans maintain that the Democrats’ focus on abortion as an election issue will backfire, particularly amid a surge of migration at the southern border and a volatile economy where inflation is rising much faster than wage growth. 

“Instead of addressing skyrocketing inflation, a looming recession, or the crisis at the southern border, Nancy Pelosi is leading the charge on another losing issue for Democrats,” Emma Vaughn, spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said in an email. “Pelosi, Biden, and Democrats’ radical abortion agenda is out of touch with more than 80 percent of Americans, and another reason why Americans will vote for Republicans up and down the ballot this November.” 

But for Democrats outraged by the thought that the Supreme Court might soon discard almost 50 years of settled law under Roe, the issue, they say, could be crucial to their efforts to keep control of delicate majorities in both chambers. 

“It’s been just a tsunami out there of opposition to this. This is a new day when it comes to voter turnout,” said Schakowsky. “This is against the will of the people.”

Tags Jan Schakowsky Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Samuel Alito

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