Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, 25 Democratic senators wrote to President Biden demanding “a whole-of-government response” to the prospect of state abortion bans. Two months later, there was an opportunity to enact such policies regardless of Republican opposition, but Democrats in Congress didn’t even bother bringing them up for a vote.
The narrow Democratic majorities and the Senate filibuster had seemed to preclude legislation to counteract the effect of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Senate failed to overcome a filibuster on abortion legislation in February, and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) oppose overturning the filibuster rule, meaning that abortion-related legislation would need 60 votes.
But the budget reconciliation bill that Congress just passed was different. It could—and did—pass the Senate with only Democratic votes, including Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaker. The bill also provided an opportunity to get around the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits most federal funding of abortions. The amendment applies only to appropriations through the annual spending bill that funds the Department of Health and Human Services.
Senate rules require all provisions of a reconciliation bill to have a primary nexus to the federal budget. Democrats couldn’t have used this bill to make policy changes like “codifying” Roe v. Wade or repealing the Hyde Amendment. But they could have allocated federal funds for abortion access in any number of ways, from creating grants to fund out-of-state travel to a tax credit reimbursing patients for the procedure itself.
Yet of the nearly 500 amendments that lawmakers filed on the budget reconciliation bill, the only ones touching on abortion came from Republicans. Not only did the issue not receive a vote on the Senate floor; it barely received a word of debate, belying the Democratic senators’ June push for “a whole-of-government response.” In the House, no Democrat attempted to offer an amendment to the bill—on abortion or anything else.
It’s as if all this “reproductive freedom” talk is just an empty slogan.