“Biden is the leader of the party. He needs to send the message that he supports abortion rights,” said Destiny Lopez with the abortion rights group All* Above All, which has met with Biden’s team during the transition and since he took office. “That starts with the administration being willing to talk about this issue or even say the word 'abortion.’”
Yet such action in Friday's budget would be largely symbolic, as the policy change is almost certain not to clear the 50-50 Senate. And yet, Biden could still use the moment to showcase his transformation from one of the Democratic Party’s most vocally anti-abortion lawmakers to one of its most progressive presidents.
Biden served notice he was following his party's move to the left at a 2019 candidate forum hosted by Planned Parenthood, where he pledged that if elected, he would ensure “poor women will have complete coverage” for abortion.
“There’s no rationale that can be offered that if you’re covered by the federal system, you cannot then use federal funding to seek reproductive health care,” he told the South Carolina audience.
A White House official told POLITICO that “nothing has changed” since then, but wouldn’t say what Biden would do if Congress ultimately includes the funding restrictions in its spending bills.
Democrats who control Congress’ discretionary spending aren’t waiting for the White House to act, and have already begun quietly to draft a plan that would drop the Hyde amendment and allow Medicaid, Medicare, federal employee health insurance and the Indian Health Service to cover abortions.
Democratic lawmakers backed away from an election-year fight over the Hyde amendment last year, arguing there was no point in making House members take a politically risky vote with the repeal effort certain to die either in the then-GOP-controlled Senate or with a stroke of then-President Donald Trump’s veto pen.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who took over the Appropriations gavel in January, says “now is the time” to push the change through, given Democrats’ narrow Senate majority and Biden’s support.
Yet the effort is still likely to fail.
Enough centrist Senate Democrats oppose dropping the Hyde amendment to kill the push in the evenly divided upper chamber.
“I’m where I have always been on Hyde: I’m supportive of it,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) told POLITICO. “I think there’s a wide disagreement on the issue across the country, and we’ve made the decision now over generations that those who don’t support abortion shouldn’t have their tax dollars going to it.”
Casey, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) voted to apply Hyde prohibitions to the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill Congress approved in March — a move that would have extended the abortion coverage ban into the private insurance market but that fell short of the 60 votes required for adoption. Though all three still voted for the final package, Manchin told the National Review at the time: “We should have the Hyde amendment. The Hyde amendment’s something I’ve always supported.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees health spending, is currently talking to colleagues to build support not only for scrapping the abortion funding ban in the upcoming budget but also for passing a bill that would remove the issue altogether from annual budget wrangling.
"Especially with a conservative Supreme Court taking up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, we've got to do everything we can to stand up for reproductive health care," she said in a statement to POLITICO. Justices this month agreed to review Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a sign that the court’s 6-3 conservative majority may be ready to curtail the right to terminate a pregnancy.
But even the chamber’s staunchest abortion rights supporters concede it’ll be an uphill battle.
“This is one of those things where it’s hard to change people’s minds,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). "I don’t think we’re quite there yet,”
A majority of the public tends to oppose federal funding for abortions even as they support the right to terminate a pregnancy in most circumstances — though polling can swing based on the wording of the question. The Democratic base, however, has shifted left in recent years, and Biden’s 2019 reversal of his long-held support for Hyde helped him with Democratic primary voters, a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll found.
Such trend lines are encouraging progressives to turn up the pressure on Biden back up his campaign talk, and warn that Democrats will face an electoral backlash if they retain the Hyde language.
“A clean budget from you will send a signal to Congress that you agree abortion coverage bans and restrictions are harmful, unnecessary, and should be removed,” nearly two-dozen progressive lawmakers wrote to Biden. “This will send a strong message to Congress, the country, and the world that everyone should be able to decide when and how to start a family— regardless of how much money they make, the type of insurance they have or where they live.”
Abortion rights advocates have reframed the debate in recent years as an issue of racial and economic justice, arguing that the anti-abortion budget riders have created a two-tier system where people with means can jump through the hoops needed to get an abortion and pay for it either out of pocket or with private insurance. That leaves the poor who depend on Medicaid and who can’t travel across state lines stymied.
“For many communities in the country, particularly black and brown communities, Roe hasn’t been a reality,” said Lopez of All* Above All, referring to the Supreme Court ruling that established the legal right to abortion. “We have to make the right to abortion real by making sure there are clinics in our communities and that insurance can cover it and that there’s no shame or stigma around it.”
But Republican appropriators counter that lifting the Hyde amendment would sow division and undercut Biden’s promise to bring the country together.
Dozens of anti-abortion organizations led by Susan B. Anthony List have also jumped into the fray ahead of the budget release, hitting Biden for changing his position on federal funding for abortion after decades of opposing it as a senator and warning lawmakers against dropping the restrictions, according to a letter obtained by POLITICO.
"We are deeply concerned that these longstanding, bipartisan, consensus amendments will soon be out the window if the Biden Administration and pro-abortion Democrats have their way," said Mallory Quigley, the spokesperson for SBA List.