Tommy Tuberville spent months casting himself as the Senate’s anti-abortion martyr. Now that he’s dropped the torch, nobody is looking to pick it up.
Tuberville’s months-long blockade of military promotions not only failed to prompt a change in the Biden administration abortion policy it was designed to protest — it also failed to rally his fellow conservatives behind pursuit of abortion restrictions through new legislation or other tactics. As the entire GOP flounders without a unified approach to the issue in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade‘s demise, Tuberville’s stand appears to have had no effect.
“Look, I’m a realist. I recognize that a Senate controlled by Chuck Schumer is not going to do anything on the abortion issue,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said.
Even the heaps of praise that anti-abortion groups piled on Tuberville as the gold standard did not inspire much within the GOP. Senate Republicans say they’re resigned to the reality that his one-man campaign didn’t work.
“I don’t know of a strategy at this point. I don’t know about tactics at this point,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-S.D.) said of Republicans’ abortion strategy. “I don’t have any plans to address it, other than just keep trying to change the policy.”
Abortion has largely become a losing issue for Republicans since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last year. State referendums on abortion have overwhelmingly skewed toward protecting or expanding access. Voter interest in abortion access is credited with helping Democrats only narrowly lose the House when pollsters projected a blowout.
Just last month, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection in deep-red Kentucky after running heavily on abortion.
Which means that any further efforts to push abortion limits now could easily turn into a political gift for Democrats. So while they’re on the precipice of taking back the majority in 2024, Senate Republicans aren’t interested in following Tuberville.
“We’ll look for opportunities, but that’s a tough one when we’re in the minority,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.
Republicans had hoped to see the final defense policy bill preserve House-backed language blocking the Pentagon abortion policy that Tuberville was protesting, but it did not survive when a final bicameral agreement finally got released this week.
If that language rolling back the policy to reimburse service members for abortion-related travel gets stripped, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said before the final bill emerged, “I do want to reassess and see what comes next.”
Some Republicans pinpointed Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) 15-week abortion ban as, perhaps, the next big focus for anti-abortion conservatives. That bill, introduced after the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe, went nowhere and gave fodder to Democratic campaigns that claimed Republicans would try and enact a national abortion ban.
Graham has yet to reintroduce the legislation this Congress.
“The Republican Party needs to have a position on late term abortions,” Graham said. “We should be in the camp of not only criticizing the Democratic position of abortion on demand up to the moment of birth, but offering an alternative that puts us in line with a civilized world.”
Still, self-proclaimed realists like Vance aren’t sure that proposal would make a difference : “I’d be shocked if that got a vote, at least in this Senate,” he said.
And while anti-abortion groups have thanked Tuberville for his efforts, it’s unclear if they’ve pressed any other Senate Republicans to pick up the mantle.
“We will be calling on members of the House and Senate to prioritize protecting military funds for military families,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Student for Life, which had backed Tuberville’s holds.
The GOP-controlled House remains friendlier territory for anti-abortion policy. But given the shrinking Republican margins caused by the expulsion of former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s early retirement, the prospects of passing abortion legislation in the House are uncertain at best.
Tuberville himself isn’t giving up. On Wednesday evening, he said he wouldn’t impose any more holds. Hundreds of the nominees he’d previously blocked were quickly confirmed on Tuesday.
Asked about any further plans for abortion action this Congress, Tuberville replied: “We’re working on something. It’s hard when you just get kicked in the teeth.”
In fact, he suggested that any new moves on abortion might be designed to get bipartisan buy-in.
It would be ideal to “get something to get them either on the record or get them to do the right thing,” Tuberville said of Democrats.
But after Tuberville snarled the military for months using Senate rules, Democrats are still concerned that another Republican could emulate him. Several Republican candidates endorsed Tuberville’s holds — signaling that potential future senators see the tactics as an opportunity.
But after 10 months of holds ended with no policy benefits for Tuberville, some Democrats hope he serves as a deterrent.
“I think people will think twice moving forward” with future blockades, said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
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