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For the first time in years, Sen. Graham hasn't introduced a national abortion ban

Sen. Lindsey Graham has introduced a federal abortion ban bill every Congress since 2013. As Republicans scramble on abortion messaging, his legislation is conspicuously absent.
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WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has spent much of the last decade as one of the leading proponents of a federal abortion ban.

In each of the last five full sessions of Congress, dating to 2013, he proposed legislation to ban abortion at 20 weeks. After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, he triumphantly announced new legislation to ban abortion at 15 weeks, irking some of his colleagues by doing so less than two months before the 2022 midterm elections.

But as Democrats overperformed that November and voters in states across the country have without exception come down on the side of protecting abortion access since then, Graham has done something curious: He hasn’t proposed the legislation yet.

Since 2013, he has never waited this long into a congressional session to file a national abortion ban bill. Asked about the decision, he brushed it off.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Graham said in a brief interview in December.

Arguing that the Senate needs to get through negotiations over immigration and Ukraine aid first, Graham added: “I eventually will, next year.”

Months later, the Senate is still mired in those negotiations. And there has been no public announcement from Graham about abortion legislation, with his office telling NBC News last week it had no updates. The office of Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who regularly championed the bill in the House, didn’t respond. Neither did representatives for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the more prominent anti-abortion-rights groups that have repeatedly backed the bill.

It’s a stark departure for one of the anti-abortion-rights movement’s most powerful allies. And while Graham has sought to publicly downplay the decision, it’s emblematic of the GOP’s strategic shift as it looks to regroup in a new political landscape — it is freer than it has been in decades to restrict abortion access, thanks to the 2022 Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe, but it risks facing even more blowback from voters.

Lindsey Graham speaks during a news conference.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 17.Kent Nishimura / Getty Images

Sen. Mike Braun R-Ind., who endorsed Graham's 20-week ban in 2021, suggested Monday that there was little point in bringing it up again this Congress. “I think that the key victory was getting it from the Supreme Court and putting it back to the states. So to me, I don’t know what the benefit of that is. It’s not going to pass anyway, right? I don’t think we’ll get 60 senators, so I think we should take what we accomplished from the courts," Braun said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the “Supreme Court made clear that it would be the elected legislatures and principally the elected legislatures in the states” that set abortion laws, criticizing “Democrat consultants that get paid a whole lot of money to scaremonger the voters.”

But at the same time, he hinted that Congress could consider future “guardrails at the outer edges.”

As the Republican Party grapples with the issue, some prominent Senate candidates are backing away from their past statements on abortion rights, now saying they wouldn’t support bans after having lauded abortion restrictions in the past.

Nevada Republican Senate hopeful Sam Brown announced last week he wouldn’t support a federal ban on abortion, citing his wife Amy’s experience having an abortion before their marriage. He had previously signaled support for abortion restrictions in previous bids. 

“We’ve got to lead with compassion. And this is not just a policy issue,” Brown said in an exclusive interview. “We’re talking about people’s lives. I would love to see the conversation take that into account a lot more.”

The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision was the culmination of decades of action by the anti-abortion-rights movement, a landmark victory for a key part of the Republican base that emboldened new state and federal legislation.

Graham doubled down by refiling his federal ban months later, lowering the ceiling from 20 weeks to 15 weeks and costing him more than 30 co-sponsors in the process. (The bill maintained exceptions for the life of the woman and for victims of rape and incest.)

He made the announcement last fall flanked by many prominent conservative and anti-abortion-rights activists, including from Susan B. Anthony List, but no lawmakers stood with him.

The proposal immediately divided Republicans just weeks before Election Day. Many questioned the wisdom of announcing a bill when Democrats held Congress and the White House and as Republicans had spent months distancing themselves from a federal abortion ban, arguing the decision should be up to individual state legislatures.

In the wake of Democratic success in the midterms, many Republicans decided it was time to go back to the drawing board. NBC News reported last year that top Senate leaders presented their members with polling suggesting they shift away from the “pro-life” moniker that has dominated their movement for decades because the term didn’t resonate with voters. Even former President Donald Trump, who nominated half of the justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, argued that Republicans handled the issue “poorly” on the campaign trail in 2022. (Trump had also been looking to deflect blame away from the poor performance of many candidates whom he had personally championed.)

The overturning of Roe has again proved thorny for Republican Senate candidates heading into another election year. An Alabama Supreme Court decision that frozen embryos created through in vitro fertilization are “babies,” a ruling that could result in curtailing IVF treatments, has sent the GOP scrambling.

A slew of high-profile Senate candidates all distanced themselves from the Alabama ruling in recent days, as Democrats warned that the ruling was a preview of new laws and restrictions on reproductive rights. The National Republican Senatorial Committee told Republicans in a memo that “when responding to the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, it is imperative that our candidates align with the public’s overwhelming support for IVF and fertility treatments.”

But Democrats and abortion-rights activists accuse Republicans of softening their language while continuing to pursue abortion restrictions.

“I do not pretend to understand the internal workings of Republican strategists or a Republican member of Congress, but what I will say is: I think they have read enough polls to know how unpopular a federal abortion ban is,” Christina Reynolds, the senior vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, told NBC News.

“They have not changed their agenda but are in fact willing to be quiet until they take power,” she said.

Congressional Republicans have continued to bring up anti-abortion-rights messaging bills in the House and attempted to add abortion restrictions to must-pass legislation, including in the current government funding fight. But because Democrats control the Senate and the White House, none have passed into law.

The House’s 2023 defense authorization, passed in July, included an amendment that would have blocked the military from paying for abortion-related expenses, transgender surgery and hormone treatments. But at the end of the year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed to cut those demands from the defense spending bill that ultimately landed on President Joe Biden’s desk. That legislation passed with more Democratic support than Republican backers in the GOP-led House, drawing the ire of conservatives who wanted their party to stand firm on tying abortion policy changes to the must-pass bill.

The House’s Life at Conception Act, which “declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization,” has the backing of 125 Republican members of Congress, including House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana. It hasn’t gotten a vote this year.

In a statement to NBC News, Planned Parenthood Action Fund President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said Republicans are “trying to fly under the radar by hiding their true intentions with misleading bill names and attempting to force their dangerous agenda through must-pass government funding bills.”

Not all Republicans on Capitol Hill are satisfied with the less-than-high-profile approach. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., stoked outrage — some of it from members of his own party — by blocking hundreds of military promotions for months over a Defense Department policy that pays for service members’ abortion-related travel expenses.

Tuberville, who is in his first term, eventually let up on his hold when Republican leadership began to sour on him publicly as his blockade kept the abortion debate front of mind on Capitol Hill. 

And the issue has been hotly debated in the GOP presidential primaries, in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended his state’s six-week ban, Trump has weighed backing a 16-week federal ban and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has criticized her Republican rivals for not being empathetic enough about the issue.

Democrats aren’t buying the shift, which they say is strictly rhetorical.

“They are making a crassly political decision and hoping that voters will not remember their records, will not remember their agenda and not associate them with the party that’s absolutely gotten us here. And I don’t think it will work,” Reynolds said.