A short distance away, House Democrats gathered on the steps of the United States Capitol to sing a heartfelt rendition of “God Bless America” to celebrate the passage of a modest oversight bill firearms — a moment that seemed deaf to many Democrats given the judicial bombshell that had just landed.
For an increasingly vocal group of Democrats, activists and even frustrated congressmen, such responses from party leaders have been surprisingly inadequate to deal with a moment of crisis. They criticize the idea that it’s up to voters to show up in November when they say Democrats are unwilling to push boundaries and overthrow the system to defend hard-won civil liberties.
“We have Democrats doing the opposite, you know? They just don’t fight,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said. “When people see this, what will make them show up to vote? We can’t just tell people, “Well, vote, vote to eliminate your problems.” Because they look at us and say, “Well, we already voted for you.”
Progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.), have outlined several actions they want Democrats to take: Build abortion clinics on federal lands. Fund people to get abortions out of state. Limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court or expand its composition. End of obstruction.
“We can do it!” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently after listing some of these measures. “We can at least TRY.”
Biden faces a bombshell that could define his presidency
Warren called on Biden to declare a national medical emergency, and she said the administration could establish Planned Parenthood outposts bordering national parks. “The point is recognition of the emergency and the urgency to get help,” she said in an interview. “People need help immediately.”
Biden and his team have signaled discomfort with many of these ideas, especially any sweeping overhaul of the Supreme Court. Asked by reporters recently if he thinks the Supreme Court is “broken,” Biden said only, “I think the Supreme Court has made some terrible decisions.
A senior White House official said Biden was just being honest with the public about what he could do unilaterally, adding that the president is ‘taking major steps under executive authority as he fights this extreme decision very hard. — but being clear and honest that only Congress can fix the situation. »
White House officials note that the administration has taken steps to protect access to the so-called abortion pill even in states trying to ban it, and that the president has pledged to protect women. who are looking to cross state lines to get an abortion.
The official said that while the proposal to establish abortion clinics on federal lands was “well-intentioned,” it could endanger pregnant women and providers, and that in states where abortion is illegal, women and claimants who are not federal employees could be prosecuted. Some legal experts have also raised questions about whether such a proposal would hold up in court, and White House officials fear it could violate the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion. , unless the life of a pregnant person is in danger or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest.
Some activists acknowledge that Biden’s ability to act is limited. Only Congress can codify abortion rights nationwide, and the Senate, where the filibuster requires 60 votes to pass almost any law, is split 50-50 between the parties.
But many abortion-rights supporters say Republicans have routinely broken the rules in recent years and profited enormously — for example, by blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick — and that for Democrats, continuing to observe the intricacies is tantamount to unilateral disarmament.
A Supreme Court eager for change
“We are dealing with a party that undermines the very essence of what it means to be a country that is rooted in this philosophy of equal protection under the law. You can’t fight this if the people on the other side are constantly moderating and modulating and compromising. That’s not the age we’re in,” said Reverend William Barber, a North Carolina preacher who is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“You fight a crisis until the crisis is over,” Barber added. “You can’t go too far when you’re at the bottom, and these people took us to the bottom.”
If Biden pursues aggressive executive actions to expand abortion access, even if those measures are ultimately overturned by a court, it would energize supporters and signal to voters that Democrats are fighting, the lawyers said.
Kurt Bardella, a former Republican who now consults for Democrats, said party leaders can’t be afraid of bold moves because of potential legal challenges.
“Democrats start with the question, ‘Do we have the right to do this or not?’ And I think Democratic voters will forgive you if you try and later a court turns out to overturn it,” Bardella said. “But at least you’ve tried in the meantime to hold things together. and lead you into the next election. What they won’t forgive is if you keep asking them to keep you in power but you don’t do anything about it, or at least try to do something about it .
The divisions over how to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling have exposed fractures within the Democratic Party that often run along familiar generational, ideological and strategic fault lines.
At one end is Biden, who has long been committed to the traditions and institutions of the federal government. He has shown a reluctance to dismantle the Senate filibuster, even when it comes to issues as fundamental to his party as the right to vote. Biden said he believes increasing the total number of Supreme Court justices, while vying for a ruling party, is ultimately perilous and could lead to the erosion of other standards when Republicans regain control. from Washington.
But a growing number of liberals say that unless Democratic leaders show a willingness to embrace more creative ways to advance their agenda, their most loyal voters will have little reason to run in the midterm elections. in Congress.
“It’s really important right now that they show they are fighting for the people, so that people have a reason to go and vote for them in November. The good will of the voters is not going to last that long – it’s been going on for years,” said Nelini Stamp, director of strategy and partnerships for the Working Families Party, a prominent left-leaning group. “People don’t want to hear, ‘Vote Democrat.’ They want to hear what people are going to do. We want Biden to use the full power of his administration, even if he could be pushed back in court. We want to see people fight for us.
Bush said she remembered the “boost” she felt when she heard about the Supreme Court’s decision. An activist before being elected to Congress during protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, Bush said she immediately began thinking about what action to take.
She had already sent a letter to Biden last week ahead of the ruling, along with 19 other black congresswomen, urging the president to “use all executive authorities to address the public health crisis our nation will face if Roe vs. Wade is dismantled. She said she and her fellow progressives would continue to push House leaders to vote on a myriad of bills protecting abortion rights, to support their campaign message that Democrats are the party that delivers. .
Some Democrats note that such bills would immediately die in the Senate. But others say it is essential to show voters what the party would do if it had even slightly larger majorities.
In a letter to her colleagues on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) outlined specific legislation leaders are considering in the coming months. They include protecting women from criminal prosecution if they travel out of state to have an abortion and protecting women’s personal data stored in reproductive health apps, in case state lawmakers attempt to access this information to determine if a woman has had an abortion.
Pelosi left the door open for more provisions when lawmakers returned to Washington in July, but instructed the Senate to weed out the filibuster and pass legislation codifying Roe v. Wade, that the House passed last year. The senses. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have been the Democrats most resistant to eliminating the filibuster, and some Democrats say electing additional senators from states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could establish a majority that would adopt such a decision.
More than 30 Senate Democrats signed a letter led by Warren and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to Biden that called for “bold action,” adding “You have the power to fight back and lead a national response to this devastating decision. .”
Some activists said Democratic leaders’ urge to vote for them to save abortion rights echoes the refrain activists have heard about police reform in the wake of Floyd’s killing and protecting suffrage — two major initiatives that failed despite narrow Democratic majorities in Washington.
“It’s very similar to what happened in 2020: ‘Go back to the voting booths.’ … It always comes down to ‘Now you, the individual, do something,'” said Paris Hatcher, executive director of Black Feminist Future. “But we elected these people who are in office right now to act on things like this It becomes a very passive way of passing the buck when we elected them to get things done that are focused on the welfare of people.
Caroline Kitchener contributed to this report.