WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) – The White House is unlikely to take up the bold steps to protect women’s right to have an abortion that Democratic lawmakers have called for in recent days, interviews with officials show.
In a speech after the rollback of the Roe vs. Wade decision on Friday, President Joe Biden slammed the “extreme ideology” of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court, but said then there are few things he could do by executive order to protect women’s reproductive rights.
Since then, lawmakers including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have suggested Biden limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction or expand its membership, end the legislative “filibuster” rule, build abortion clinics on federal lands, declare a national emergency and establish Planned Parenthood outposts outside U.S. national parks, among other options.
More than 30 Senate Democrats signed a letter to Biden, urging him to ‘fight back,” take “bold action” and “lead a national response to this devastating decision” after the court overturned the right to abortion.
But the White House is pursuing a more limited set of policy responses while urging voters and Congress to act. The White House’s plans include a range of executive actions in the coming days, as well as promising to protect women who cross state lines for abortions and support for medical abortion.
Biden and officials are concerned that more radical moves would be politically polarizing ahead of November’s midterm elections, undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court or lack strong legal footing, sources inside and outside the White House say.
Biden is “telling people the truth and putting the focus where it needs to be, holding Republicans’ feet to the fire for the harm they’re causing,” a White House official said when asked about the strategy.
Biden is “fighting hard in the executive branch – like through protecting access to medication and protecting the right to interstate travel – while pushing for legislation.”
Protecting abortion rights is a top issue for women Democrats, Reuters polling shows. The White House, which misjudged when the ruling would be issued, is still not meeting the moment on the issue, some health experts and Democrats complain.
“The White House had a month, if not a year, to plan for this and they should have really come out with a major white paper plan of action the moment Dobbs was announced,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University and faculty director of its Institute for National and Global Health Law. “The impression is that the White House is leading from behind, that they were caught flat footed.”
Here’s what may happen, and what may not, in the weeks to come, based on interviews with White House officials, outside advisers, Congressional aides and legal experts.
NO SUPREME COURT REFORM
A number of legal experts, constitutional scholars and irate Democrats say the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, including on abortion, undermine the court’s legitimacy, in part because they don’t reflect popular opinion.
But the White House is not publicly entertaining the idea of reforming the court itself or expanding the nine-member panel, an option pushed by Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Representative Pramila Jayapal.
Privately, Biden has expressed skepticism about a wide range of Supreme Court reform proposals, including restricting the court’s power, setting term limits for justices, and strengthening ethics and transparency rules, according to a person involved in the conversations weeks prior to the most recent Supreme Court decision.
Last week’s ruling is unlikely to change his thinking, this person said. An expert commission Biden created to examine the issue of Supreme Court deadlocked on reform proposals in December.
Biden has not endorsed scrapping the Senate filibuster rule that could allow them to pass a federal law making abortion legal with a simple majority. Democrats only have 50 votes in the 100-seat Senate – not enough to get around a filibuster – and Republicans have lined up against proposals to make abortion a legal right nationwide.
Several Democratic lawmakers want to get rid of the filibuster altogether, including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And Republicans plan to scrap it to pass a law making abortion illegal nationwide, former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele said this week.
Biden has only endorsed Congress suspending the filibuster in limited cases, for instance to pass voting rights legislation or to raise the debt ceiling.
White House officials worry Democrats don’t have enough votes currently to support doing away with the filibuster to pass an abortion bill, and see political risks to Biden supporting the idea. Key swing votes, especially Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, oppose doing away with the filibuster.
NO FEDERAL LANDS
The White House does not support calls to allow abortion providers to work from federal property, because it is worried the federal government won’t be able to keep them safe on or off the property, two sources explained.
Offering federal funding to women to travel out of state could run afoul of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortions except in cases of risk to a mother’s life, rape or incest, two sources said.
A White House official said the idea is well-intentioned but it could put women and providers at risk. “In states where abortion is now illegal, women and providers who are not federal employees could be potentially be prosecuted,” the official said.
WHAT IS BEING CONSIDERED
The White House may take executive action in coming days, sources said, and is pushing federal agencies to make announcements on steps they will take to protect a woman’s right to reproductive care.
On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the federal government would protect access to medication abortion, defend medical professionals who perform abortions and is watching closely for states that violate women’s rights.
Officials plan to meet with activists, and are considering proposals to defend the right of a woman to travel to another state to get an abortion or fund travel to another state using Medicaid funds.
Separately, Pelosi outlined specific legislation that Democrats will consider including shielding women from criminal prosecution if they travel out of state to seek an abortion and protecting women’s personal data stored in reproductive health apps from state lawmakers.