President Biden promised on Tuesday that if Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress, he would work to codify abortion rights protections eliminated when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
With Democrats’ control of Congress—and his administration’s ability to get things done—hanging in the balance, Biden made perhaps his most direct pitch yet to motivate Democrats to get to the polls in November’s midterm elections. After taking the stage at Washington D.C.’s historic Howard Theatre to cheers of “Let’s go Joe,” he delivered a speech intended to elevate abortion as an issue in the mind of voters three weeks before Election Day, even as polling shows inflation and the economy are bigger concerns for many.
“I believe Congress should codify Roe once and for all,” Biden said. “Right now, we are short a handful of votes,” which makes the midterm election “so critical,” he said.
Biden said a bill codifying Roe would be “the first bill” he would send to Congress next year if Democrats gained seats in the Senate and the House.
Democrats in Congress have tried multiple times in the past two years to enshrine abortion protections into federal law. Most recently, the House narrowly passed the Women’s Health Protection Act in July, but the measure didn’t have enough votes to get through the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to bypass a filibuster. The upper chamber is currently split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast tie-breakers.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, 14 states have banned or tightly restricted abortion; most have only narrowly defined exemptions. The restrictions have upended medical care for a number of common conditions in those states, where doctors were previously able to administer abortions in the course of treatment for potentially deadly medical circumstances including hemorrhaging, miscarriages, and cancer.
In his speech on Tuesday, Biden also issued a veto threat, saying that if a Republican-controlled Congress passed a bill banning abortions nationwide, he would not allow it to become law. “If such a bill would pass in the next several years, I’ll veto it,” Biden said, moving into a stage whisper for the final three words.
Read more: Where Abortion Is Literally on the Ballot in 2022
The President has presided over a strong job market and low unemployment rates. But his presidency has been dogged in recent months by a spike in inflation exacerbated by supply chain disruptions, high oil prices impacted by Russia’s war in Ukraine, and influxes of cash into the economy by Congress during the pandemic.
Recent polling shows voters believe the economy is getting worse, are concerned about increased prices, and increasingly put the state of the economy on Biden’s shoulders. At the same time, the number of voters who say abortion is a very important issue ticked down slightly from 59% in September to 54% in October, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll.
Biden sought to reverse that trend on Tuesday at the iconic Howard Theatre, speaking on the same stage once lit up by performers like a young Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Dinah Washington in the 1950s, as well as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and James Brown in the 1960s.
Biden’s aides and political advisors have believed for months that anger among Democratic voters over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe could be an important, motivating factor in their bid to keep the House and Senate.
Just how to harness that energy has been subject of debate around Biden, with some advisers urging him to make more public appeals on the abortion issue, and others saying the President should focus his public push on highlighting what he and Democrats have accomplished in two years. Those accomplishments include record funding for rebuilding roads and bridges, jump starting green energy initiatives to reduce climate change, lowering health care costs and launching a student loan forgiveness program. But polling has shown that Biden is struggling to break through by touting what he’s done. Maybe, his advisors hope, he can mobilize more voters by talking about what he intends to do next.
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