How the Dobbs decision stunted anti-abortion action in the House GOP

The Supreme Court case that eliminated the federal right to obtain an abortion was preceded by years of legislative attempts by congressional Republicans to chip away at those protections.

But a year after the high court handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, there is little appetite among Republicans in the House — the only chamber where they control the majority — to take steps to restrict abortion at the national level.

Though House Republicans passed 20-week abortion ban bills three times in the last decade, many of the same abortion opponents behind those proposals now say the issue should be handled at the state level. 

And Republicans in swing districts are loath to spend political capital on a messaging bill that is dead on arrival in a Democratic-controlled Senate — particularly as more and more Americans say they are in favor of increasing abortion access.

“There's political realities in a four-seat majority,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents a district that President Biden won in 2020. While he supports some proposed anti-abortion measures in theory, he understands why others do not.

“Some people are very sensitive about it. Though they would agree to it, they're just afraid that it becomes a big issue in the next election,” Bacon said. 

That concern isn’t unfounded. Abortion played a major role in the 2022 midterms, coming in behind only inflation as the issue voters were most concerned about. The liberal side prevailed in each of the five abortion-related referendums on state ballots in November — including in Montana and Kentucky — as well as in a Kansas special election last summer and a Wisconsin Supreme Court election earlier this year that turned heavily on the issue of abortion.

A Gallup poll conducted in May found record-high support for abortion access.

Meanwhile in the House, Republicans seem to be pulling back on taking even incremental steps against abortion.

A bill to permanently codify and expand the Hyde Amendment, a provision that prohibits certain federal funds from being used on abortion procedures, was included in a list of 12 pieces of legislation House Republicans planned to pass in the first weeks of the new House majority. That bill, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act was given the high bill number of H.R. 7 — symbolic of its importance to the Republican platform.

But it never came to the floor, with opposition from moderate House Republicans being a factor.

One of those is Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.), a first-term Biden-district Republican.

“I will continue opposing standalone federal action on limiting taxpayer funding for abortion. The Dobbs decision made clear that it's an issue that should be decided at the state level, and Oregonians recently rejected efforts to limit taxpayer-funded abortion overwhelmingly,” Chavez-DeRemer said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said that leaders are “going to keep working to move” the bill, and said Republicans will work to include provisions prohibiting spending on abortion in appropriations bills.

Staff for the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House, released a memo Friday urging Republicans to stand together to pass the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act — noting that it passed with universal GOP support in January 2017, the last time the party held the House majority. 

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) has been an outspoken critic of how her party has handled abortion issues, saying in April that Republicans could “lose huge” if they continued trying to enact strict bans, but is a cosponsor of the legislation. 

She said the bill was supposed to get a floor vote last week but was pulled down due to concerns from GOP members in swing seats.

Some members took issue with the bill being “Hyde plus,” including prohibiting qualified health plans under the Affordable Care Act from providing abortion coverage. 

While Mace supports bans on the procedures as long as there are exceptions, she thinks Republicans should put more focus on options such as expanding access to birth control and adoption.

“For me as a woman and as a victim of rape, it's really important that we as Republicans let women know we care about them,” Mace said.

The House did pass two measures related to “pro-life” issues in February: A bill to require care to be given to an infant who survives an abortion procedure (Democrats have argued that a 2002 law already guarantees infants’ legal rights), and a resolution condemning attacks on anti-abortion centers and churches.

And some moderate Republicans think the House should not go much further than that.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), another Republican who represents a district that Biden won, said he does not think there should be more action in the House GOP to implement more abortion restrictions.

“I think that it's a very divisive issue, and we need to start building a bridge on it,” Fitzpatrick said. “I'm a big believer in legislating between the 40-yard lines and eliminating extreme options on all sides.”

That marks a stark change from the abortion politics in Congress over the last decade, when incremental nationwide ban legislation helped gradually build momentum for the anti-abortion cause leading up to the Dobbs decision.

House Republicans passed a 20-week abortion ban when they controlled the House in 20132015 and 2017. Last year, that bill was modified to ban abortions after 15 weeks.

But now, House GOP leaders are distancing themselves from any kind of national abortion ban.

“It works through committee. The Supreme Court has made that decision. It goes to the states, the states will take up that issue,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a press conference in April when asked if Republicans will put forward a national ban on abortion in any form.

Interest in pursuing a national abortion ban also appears low in the Senate GOP.

“Most of our folks are of a mind that, you know, letting states decide is the best course of action,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. 

But Thune warned that Democrats will define Republicans by the most restrictive bans and will work to guarantee abortion access at the national level — which could push the debate to Congress eventually.

“At some point, there will be a debate here at the national level,” Thune said. “The position I've come behind is the 15-week ban.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he still thinks Republicans should support the 15-week ban proposal he spearheaded last year, calling it a reasonable “national minimum standard.”

But Republicans are long way away from having a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate that could usher an abortion ban into law.

It's not only vulnerable Republicans veering away from a national abortion ban. Conservative Republicans in solidly red districts also say the issue should be left to the state level. 

“Nobody's bringing up a national ban. Nobody is trying to push that,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said. Donalds said that his read of the Dobbs decision is that “abortion is now to be regulated by the states, as it should have been this entire time — not by the Supreme Court and not by Congress.”

They also worry that being too assertive with anti-abortion messaging could endanger Republicans — and the anti-abortion cause — overall, now that voters have a much heightened awareness of the issue.

“I think going into a ‘24 election, presidential election, you have a lot of lessons learned from the midterms. And I think, collectively, you're seeing the states step up, particularly after Roe v. Wade, making decisions that we for the longest time have advocated for — that this was a states rights issue,” Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.), co-chairwoman of the Pro-Life Caucus.

“But people are very cognizant of where they need to fall in terms of the messaging on this, because we certainly lost seats and had missed opportunity as a result of some pretty aggressive, extreme messaging,” Cammack said.

Mychael Schnell and Al Weaver contributed.