About 30 Senate Democrats marched down the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday to declare their support for abortion rights and shout their solidarity with protesters who gathered just across the Capitol plaza in front of the Supreme Court.
It was a typical rally. Democrats blamed Republicans for creating a Supreme Court majority that, according to a draft opinion leaked to Politico, intends to end federal abortion-rights protections by overturning Roe v. Wade. They spoke of a generation of women who will likely have fewer reproductive rights than their mothers, and they made promises to hold every Senator accountable.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was declaring that the way to protect abortion rights was to elect more Democrats to Congress in November.
Then, someone in the mostly quiet crowd shouted, "Do something!"
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Abortion rights may be the latest Democratic priority to face a dead end in the Senate
Democrats are getting used to this kind of moment, part of a well-trod cycle. Their base has a demand. Democrats agree with the demand. Democrats promise action. Democrats don't have the votes in Congress to make good on that promise.
Since President Biden took office in January 2021, less than two years ago, this story has repeated several times with voting rights, police reform, climate change and spending on the social safety net. Now, it's abortion rights.
And some voters and activists are getting tired. Renee Bracey Sherman of the abortion-rights group We Testify was at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. She said she needed lawmakers to talk about what they're actually going to do to protect abortion rights.
"We asked for the president of the United States to come out and speak to all of us and talk about the abortion crisis and give us a plan of what he is going to do," Bracey Sherman said. "Until he does that and actually acts on that plan, it is not enough."
She said that was true for all politicians who say they support abortion rights.
Other activists are venting similar frustrations.
"Time and time again, we have seen Democrats use abortion rights as a campaign issue and fail to deliver on their promises to protect and expand our right to reproductive freedom," said Analilia Mejia, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.
"We deserve leadership that represents the vast majority of Americans who believe abortion should be accessible and affordable to all who require this critical health care."
Their calls range from abolishing the filibuster and passing federal abortion protections to expanding the Supreme Court to allow Democrats to appoint new justices and shift the balance of power to the political left.
The filibuster could again foil Democrats' plans
But there's little that Democrats can do right now to address any of it.
Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans support the right to an abortion. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that voters feel Democrats would do a better job on the issue of abortion by an 11 percentage-point margin.
The number of congressional Democrats opposing abortion rights has dwindled to a mere handful in recent years. But this massive support is not enough to overcome the same political divisions that have prevented Democrats from passing most other party priorities.
Senate Democrats do not have the option of circumventing the filibuster to pass federal abortion protections. This means they would need either 60 votes to pass a bill or unanimous agreement among their members to overturn the filibuster.
That agreement remains out of reach, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., telling reporters on Tuesday that he still supports the filibuster.
"The filibuster is the only protection we have of democracy right now," Manchin said. "The bottom line is we need checks and balances."
Democrats intend to hold votes, but they don't promise outcomes
Democrats have been very clear about their limitations, particularly in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., promised to hold a vote to "codify the right to an abortion in law." But he was careful not to promise that it would pass.
"A vote on this legislation is not an abstract exercise. This is as urgent and real as it gets," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "We will vote to protect a women's right to choose, and every American is going to see which side every senator stands."
Other Democrats have been equally clear about their expectations.
When asked about what the Senate can do in response to the draft opinion, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, pointed to ethics reforms that Congress could pass and changes that could increase transparency about the outside political support that justices may receive.
But pressed about what this Congress can do in the near term to specifically address abortion, Hirono pointed to Democrats' limitations.
"You mean the Senate, because the House already passed a bill," Hirono said. "You'd have to get rid of a filibuster in the Senate."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told reporters that Congress needs to vote and keep voting to force lawmakers to make their positions public.
"Congress is the last hope for millions of people across this country whose lives and well-being have been put at risk by a United States Supreme Court that is out at the far fringe of America," she said. "Everyone needs to be on the record about where they stand."
None of that fulfills the activists' calls for immediate remedy. But Democrats hope it will be enough to get voters like Robin Galbraith to the polls in November.
Galbraith, a mother of two adult children who lives in Maryland, told NPR the draft decision is a wake-up call for Democrats who may have been planning to sit out the upcoming election.
"I am dedicated to getting out the vote until November," she said. "It has woken a volcano in me. I mean, I'm just livid."
Danielle Kurtzleben and Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.
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