With just over a week until government funding is set to expire, Senate Democrats blocked a bill that would ban abortions from being conducted on fetuses after 20-weeks of gestation, a time at which supporters of the bill say a fetus can feel pain.
The motion, which needed 60 votes to advance, failed 54-42.
The vote was yet another attempt by GOP leadership to allow Republicans to vote on the topic of abortion ahead of what is expected to be a contentious government funding fight. Conservative Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in that chamber, are calling on their colleagues to block any government funding bill which does not strip federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
Government funding expires at the end of September.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told reporters that he sees that strategy as an "exercise in futility," simply because Senate Democrats blocked a measure in August that would move federal funds away Planned Parenthood to women's health clinics that do not provide abortions.
"We are not going to engage in exercises in futility," McConnell told reporters last week, "We've already voted one time in the Senate to try to defund Planned Parenthood. We knew the President wouldn't sign such a bill, so it will not succeed."
But that hasn't stopped Cruz, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, from circulating a letter to fellow Republicans asking for them to sign on to his strategy.
"The American people should no longer be forced to fund the abortion industry; therefore we will oppose any government funding legislation that would authorize or provide federal funds for Planned Parenthood," the text of the letter, addressed to Sen. McConnell, reads.
But the letter has faced opposition from fellow Republicans, with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, sending a letter back to Cruz in response, pressing him on how his strategy will result in anything other than a government shutdown.
"Since we only received 53 votes on the previous vote to redirect money away from Planned Parenthood, what is your strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood?" Ayotte asks Cruz in her letter, "How do we get 60 votes? And if for some reason there were 60 votes, how do we get 67 votes in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto?"
While today's bill did not address federal funding for Planned Parenthood, supporters say it would have put the United States in line with the majority of the world when it comes to abortion policies.
The House passed the bill in May by a vote of 242-184, with four Democrats joining the vast majority of Republicans to support the measure.
"We're one of seven nations in the entire world that allow abortion on demand at 20 weeks, the fifth month of the pregnancy," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who is also running for president said on the Senate floor, "I'd like to get us out of that club."
But opponents of the bills on both sides of the aisle said the bill amounted to an attack on a woman's right to choose, and that language included in the bill was too vague when discussing exceptions of the ban for victims of rape and incest.
"Under this bill, Mr. President, a doctor who performs such an abortion after 20 weeks to prevent grievous physical injury to the pregnant woman would be subject to criminal penalties of up to five years in prison," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said on the Senate floor, "Do we really want to make a criminal out of a physician who is trying to prevent a woman with preeclampsia from suffering damage to her kidneys or liver or having a stroke or seizures?"
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called the vote a "waste of time" in light of the impending expiration of government funding, saying last week that the vote was in an effort to please the pope ahead of his historic visit to the Capitol to address Congress on Thursday.
"I guess they want to do that before the pope gets here," Reid said, "But it's not going to change the pope, how he feels about the fact that republicans have ignored poor people in America. It's not going to change the Pope, how he feels about what's happening to our great world that we live in, that we know dealing with climate change."