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Democrats wrestle with how aggressively to respond to the end of Roe v. Wade

President Biden is being "overly cautious in this moment,” said one progressive advocate. “We want to see imagination. We want to see creativity. We want to see something.”
Image: Abortion rights demonstrator Amanda Herring and her 1-year-old son Abraham outside the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022.
Abortion rights demonstrator Amanda Herring and her 1-year-old son, Abraham, outside the Supreme Court on Friday. Hannah Beier for NBC News

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s elimination of Roe v. Wade has sparked tension inside the Democratic Party about how to channel the backlash in response to the unpopular ruling, with some liberals frustrated by what they perceive to be an overly cautious approach by President Joe Biden.

The division also points to a larger political disagreement among Democrats about how to mobilize voters in the 2022 midterm elections. While Biden and some party leaders prefer to tread carefully to avoid overreaching, other Democrats and advocates want the party to be more aggressive and test the boundaries of executive action to demonstrate to voters that they're fighting.

“I’m very disturbed — although it is completely understandable — as I’m talking to young women in particular in my district, who are in a place of detached acceptance and resignation,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., told NBC News. “It is really important that they see us fight, that they see us exhausting every tool available to us — in order to restore their faith in their leaders and these institutions.”

“There is a tremendous sense of — and I share it — betrayal, anger, fear,” she said. “The one emotion I won’t allow myself to have is to be paralyzed.”

Behind the scenes there is tension among Democrats, as reflected by the lingering differences despite having nearly two months since the leaked draft to unify behind a response to the 6 to 3 ruling.

“We’ve made our feelings known very clearly. Now it’s time for action,” said Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., who highlighted abortion rights in her successful 2020 primary against an anti-abortion Democrat. “I’m encouraging President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris to really put the full weight of the executive branch into this matter and get it moving.”

Newman said it may not be enough to simply ask Americans to vote. “I’m out running around and I see a lot of younger voters that are saying, Look, we did what you asked us to. So my message back is: You are right,” she said, adding that voters already elected a Democratic government and now “need to see an action plan.”

Newman called for creating a carveout to the “ridiculous” Senate filibuster to enshrine legal abortion, adding seats to the Supreme Court to rebalance its rightward tilt and the use of executive action to make abortion available on federal lands in states where it’s outlawed.

Pressley added that Biden should “declare a public health emergency” after the ruling as a way to surge resources to expand “access to medication abortion” and over-the-counter birth control.

'Not something that he wants to do'

But the White House is not supporting any of those ideas.

A White House official rejected calls to make abortion available on federal lands, calling the idea “well-intentioned” but saying it “could put women and providers at risk.” Vice President Harris told CNN on Monday of the idea: “It’s not, right now, what we are discussing.”

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden “does not agree with” Democrats who want to expand the Supreme Court. “That is not something that he wants to do,” she said.

Biden has not called for filibuster changes to pass abortion rights legislation, although that decision would be up to the Senate and require unanimous Democratic support. All 50 Senate Democrats have called for codifying legal abortion in some form but two of them, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., support the filibuster.

In a letter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats are exploring new legislation to protect women’s intimate and personal data, to make clear that Americans have a “right to travel freely and voluntarily” and to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act again.

She asked voters to send more Democrats to Congress “so that we can eliminate the filibuster so that we can restore women’s fundamental rights — and freedom for every American.”

Sen. Sinema responded to the draft ruling weeks ago by noting the 60-vote threshold for “safeguarding against the erosion of women’s access to health care” under GOP Senate control, and adding that the minority blocking tool is “more important now than ever.” Her office sent NBC News a list of examples of Democrats using the filibuster to defeat GOP legislation to restrict abortion rights, including in 2018.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that Democrats simply need "two senators who are willing to protect access to abortion and get rid of the filibuster."

"And, yes, John Fetterman, I’m looking at you in Pennsylvania. Mandela Barnes, I’m looking at you in Wisconsin," she said. "We bring them in, then we’ve got the votes, and we can protect every woman, no matter where she lives."

'We want to see imagination'

After the 6 to 3 decision on Friday, Biden said “no executive action from the president” can restore a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. He said voters must “elect more senators and representatives who will codify a woman’s right to choose into federal law.”

In the meantime, Biden vowed to defend the right of women to travel to other states to seek an abortion, and protect women’s access to contraceptives and other “medications that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”

But some progressive advocates worry that won’t be enough to persuade disillusioned voters to elect Democrats.

“The president and the administration are being overly cautious in this moment,” said Nelini Stamp, national organizing director of the Working Families Party. “We want to see imagination. We want to see creativity. We want to see something.”

“People want to see someone who’s fighting for them,” she said, adding that even if that sparks backlash from the courts, it would enable groups like hers to motivate low-propensity voters to turn out for Democrats by arguing that they are “doing everything in their means possible.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said Democrats “simply cannot make promises, hector people to vote, and then refuse to use our full power when they do.”

Newman, the Democratic congresswoman, said Democrats should respond by setting up ballot initiatives all over the country to protect abortion rights in states. She said Congress should also vote quickly to codify other rights that the conservative-majority Supreme Court could come for next, including same-sex marriage and contraception. In the abortion ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to call on the court to revisit those cases.

John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said the abortion ruling will be a galvanizing event for young and liberal-leaning voters.

"This is a game changer," he said, describing its political impact as being on the magnitude of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks or the confluence of events under former President Donald Trump, from Charlottesville to mass shootings, that led to a Democratic trifecta.

He said the combination of the end of Roe v. Wade, Trump back in the headlines plus more bad news on climate change are "going to be highly motivating for young people," who are a key ingredient to Democratic success but tend to be flaky in midterm elections.

"And especially if Democrats understand and message and channel the values and the anger and the energy into a positive outcome — it's there," Della Volpe said in an interview. "It's there."