GOP Senate Can't Resist a ‘War on Women’

Despite liberal ballot measures passing in several red states, Republicans won big this election—and are planning to push through plenty of pet bills to restrict abortion and more.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

During his reelection campaign, Mitch McConnell pledged that if he became Senate majority leader, one of his priorities would be legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks. “In a Republican Senate, under my leadership, we would have the kind of real debate on the issues that the American people want,” McConnell told the National Right to Life Conference. Except polls show that seven in 10 Americans oppose limits on abortion access, and voters in Colorado and North Dakota roundly rejected such limits in Tuesday’s election.

Meanwhile, more than seven in 10 Americans support raising the federal minimum wage, and on Tuesday voters in four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Nebraska—passed minimum wage ballot measures by wide margins. But what has McConnell said about such obviously popular minimum wage hikes? “We’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals,” McConnell said to an assembled group of billionaires in August. “That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage,” he said, complaining about Democratic leadership.

It appears likely that in McConnell’s Senate, extremist legislation to undermine the basic rights of women will be prioritized while legislation to help women, who make up two-thirds of minimum-wage earners, will be pushed aside. After all, despite momentarily sounding ready to compromise post-election, by the end of the week it was clear Republicans had no plans to, for instance, work with White House to pass legislation that Republicans originally co-sponsored. Thus it seems likely that instead of striking a new tone of moderation, the new GOP Congress will return to its old tricks. So how else might Republicans use their newfound majority to advance their seemingly endless “War on Women”?

After the 2010 midterm election in which Republicans won control of the House, one of the first bills they introduced was the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which would cement existing prohibitions on using any government money to fund an abortion—and sought to impose further restrictions by narrowing the definition of rape in exceptions under the ban. A revised version of the law was introduced again as one of the first bills in 2013, this time without the redefinition of rape but with additional provisions to ban abortion coverage by any of the private insurance plans in the Obamacare exchanges and impose tax penalties on employers that do cover the cost of abortions. That version, HR 7, passed in the House.

Republicans have a host of other pet bills to restrict abortion access in the context of the new health-care legislation. The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, aka PRENDA, which not coincidentally sounds just like the gay rights legislation ENDA, would ban sex-selective abortion. It’s a problem, like voter fraud, that doesn’t exist but which Republicans rail against to justify other ends, in this case to restrict abortion further. The Heartbeat Informed Consent Act would require that any ultrasound prior to an abortion be shown to the pregnant woman and force the medical provider to describe the fetus’s heartbeat to the woman, free speech rights be damned. And the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act would require parental notification of abortion, regardless of the governing laws of each state. The law is co-sponsored by presidential hopeful Marco Rubio and…Mitch McConnell.

But wait, there’s more. Federal family planning funding under Title X supplements the cost of birth control, family planning counseling, breast and cervical exams, HIV tests, and other reproductive health services for low-income families. Title X does not cover abortion care, yet for decades conservatives have been campaigning to gut it, in part because it supports Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide these vital basic health services but also provide abortions using entirely separate sources of funding. Indeed, Republican efforts to eliminate Planned Parenthood’s Title X funding and gut aspects of Obamacare were at the center of the massive and costly 2013 Republican government shutdown.

While McConnell promised in an interview following his reelection that “There is no possibility of a government shutdown” under his leadership, he said in the same breath that he would use government appropriations bills to push the GOP agenda. “Appropriations bills are going to have prescriptions of certain things that we think [Obama] ought not to be doing by either reducing funding or restricting funding,” McConnell said. With that mind-set, it’s hard not to anticipate more Republican efforts to hamstring Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, setting up the conditions for more ideologically driven shutdowns on the part of the right.

If Republicans continue to try to repeal or tinker with Obamacare—despite 10 million Americans now receiving coverage thanks to the law and its increasingly popular impact, including in McConnell’s own home state—women’s advocacy groups will be watching for attacks on the contraception mandate. “Anytime horse trading begins, we have to be vigilant about women in general and low-income women in particular often being the first to be sacrificed,” says Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Along these lines, Republicans are likely to keep angling to gut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security—important for all seniors and low-income Americans but especially for women. And if there’s a Supreme Court opening, Lord help us all. President Obama has already had enough trouble getting basic appointments of fair jurists through the Democratic Senate with Republicans putting constant procedural holds on appointments.

Of course, the newly elected crop of Republicans could surprise us all and abandon their past fringe extremism, especially its “War on Women,” and step up to the task of moderate governance the American people clearly want. After all, a candidate like Colorado Republican Sen.-Elect Cory Gardner ran away from his previous anti-abortion, pro-“fetal personhood” positions in his campaign. And among voters who backed Gardner, according to exit polls, 16 percent feel abortion should be “always legal” and 42 percent think it should be “mostly legal.” These voters—not to mention those who backed Gardner’s Democratic opponent—don’t want their new senator rushing off to Congress as a new general in the GOP’s “War on Women.” Gardner and other Republicans, especially those in purple states and districts, would be wise to be a moderating influence within a party that, if it can’t show the ability to work with Democrats and govern responsibly, won’t enjoy victory much more often. As is, exit polls show women voters nationwide still stood with Democrats this election, driven especially by black women and Latina voters. The Republican Party “autopsy” following the 2012 election called for the party to do better by women voters as well as voters of color. That prognosis still stands. And unless Republicans start pursuing very different priorities in Congress, that prognosis could sting.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party voices in the GOP are still there, emboldened by the party’s new power. And there are the likes of Rubio and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, 2016 hopefuls incentivized to push pet ideological issues to woo Republican primary voters. What new legislative attacks on the basic rights and opportunities of women might they put on the table? Women’s advocates are afraid even to speculate, lest they give the Republicans any ideas. “I’m afraid enough of the things they’ve actually said they’ll do,” says Jess McIntosh, communications director of Emily’s List.

This election, says NARAL’s Hogue, “the majority of voters were not electing anyone to restrict our fundamental freedoms but to expand opportunity in our country.” Let’s hope Republicans got that message.