Senate Democrats blocked Republican legislation Tuesday that would prohibit most late-term abortions, the latest episode in a fight that has threatened to cause a partial government shutdown. At the same time, the chamber’s GOP leader began choreographing a series of votes designed to avert a federal closure.
Senators voted 54-42 to move ahead on the abortion legislation, but that fell six votes short of the 60 needed to advance the bill. With Republicans holding 54 Senate seats, the outcome was pre-ordained, but the showdown let each side highlight its willingness to battle for its most loyal voters and contributors.
Tuesday’s vote was the second time since this summer’s release of videos involving Planned Parenthood that Senate Democrats have derailed an abortion-related drive by the GOP. It was held less than 48 hours before a first-ever papal address to Congress by Pope Francis, who leads a Catholic Church that rejects abortion.
It also came as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was planning a pathway to passing legislation he hoped would keep federal agencies open and avoid a confrontation with President Barack Obama that could produce an Oct. 1 government shutdown.
McConnell scheduled a vote for Thursday on legislation keeping government agencies open through Dec. 11 while cutting off for one year the $450 million Planned Parenthood gets annually in federal funds, a third of its budget. The organization has been targeted by Republicans following videos showing its officials describing how they sometimes send fetal tissue to medical researchers.
Senate Democrats have already blocked the GOP from cutting Planned Parenthood’s money, and seem likely to derail McConnell’s bill on Thursday. The new vote seems designed to show conservatives that Senate Republicans lack the votes to prevail, and McConnell would be expected to then unveil a second bill keeping the government open without cutting Planned Parenthood’s funds.
McConnell has promised that a federal shutdown — which Republican leaders fear voters would blame on the GOP — will not happen. He also has said that efforts to halt Planned Parenthood’s money won’t succeed unless Obama is replaced by a Republican president in next year’s elections.
Abortion foes say the videos show Planned Parenthood has violated federal prohibitions against profiting from fetal tissue sales or changing some abortion procedures to maximize the harvesting of fetuses’ organs. Planned Parenthood says it’s broken no laws and says the videos were manipulated to distort the recorded conversations.
In Tuesday’s debate on late-term abortions, McConnell described the human features visible in fetal sonograms and said scientists say that fetuses can feel pain 20 weeks into development — an assertion that Democrats and many doctors contest.
“We in this chamber are never going to agree completely on the abortion question,” McConnell said. “But we should at least be able to agree that if an unborn child has reached the point where he or she can feel pain, that child’s life deserves protection.”
Democrats have noted that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said fetal pain is unlikely until a pregnancy’s third trimester. That begins several weeks after the 20-week mark the bill sets as the starting point for an abortion ban.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that Tuesday’s showdown was “yet another show vote designed to honor the political wish list of extremists.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a presidential candidate and sponsor of the legislation, said the U.S. is one of just seven countries allowing abortions after 20 weeks and said: “America needs to get out of this club.”
Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only Democrats voting to keep the bill alive. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois were the only Republicans to break their party’s ranks.
The Republican bill would set criminal penalties of up to five years in prison for doctors who perform most abortions 20 weeks or more into pregnancy. The House approved the legislation in May.
About 1 percent of reported abortions involve pregnancies of 20 weeks or more, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under the bill blocked Tuesday, late abortions would be allowed for pregnant women whose lives are endangered or who are victims of rapes for which they’ve received counseling or medical treatment. Minors made pregnant by rape or incest would be exempted if they’d reported the assault to government authorities.
Doctors performing a permissible late-term abortion would have to try saving the fetus’ life if possible, including having a neonatal specialist present and hospitalizing the newborn. Democrats say such requirements are designed to intimidate doctors out of performing abortions.
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