Republican senators worried about winning back the Senate majority in 2024 are discouraging Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) from moving any national abortion legislation before next year’s election.
Johnson, an outspoken Christian conservative who says his political worldview is guided by the Bible, remains a mystery to GOP senators even after meeting them for the first time at last week’s Wednesday lunch. The 51-year-old lawmaker rose from relative obscurity to win the Speakership late last month.
The early media coverage of his sudden ascension to power has focused on his work as a lawyer for a conservative law firm before coming to Congress and his outspoken stances on abortion, gay rights and the role of religion in public life.
Johnson called abortion a “holocaust” in a 2005 newspaper op-ed and earned an A+ ranking during his congressional career from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion group.
In 2021, he co-sponsored the Heartbeat Protection Act, which would subject physicians who perform an abortion on a fetus with a heartbeat to criminal penalties, and a bill to implement a national ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for when then mother’s life is endangered.
This year, he co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, which declares “the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization.”
He introduced legislation in February to criminalize the transport of a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion without satisfying parental involvement law.
A major question at the start of Johnson’s Speakership is whether he will insert Congress into the national abortion debate by bringing to the House floor bills to restrict abortions in various circumstances nationwide or insert abortion-related policy riders to must-pass spending bills.
Johnson suggested after winning the Speaker’s gavel that it was ordained by God, telling colleagues “that Scripture, the Bible, is very clear: that God is the one who raises up those in authority.”
And he told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he takes his political worldview from the Bible, not pollsters.
“I am a Bible-believing Christian. Someone asked me today in the media, they said, it’s curious. People are curious, ‘What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s — that’s my worldview. That’s what I believe,” Johnson said.
But Republican senators warn that it would be a major political mistake for Johnson to attempt to restrict abortion on the national level before the 2024 election, urging him to leave the issue entirely to the states.
“I’m still trying to figure out what his real priorities are. Obviously, we know he is [a] strong right-to-life supporter, but whether or not he would work to advance” abortion restrictions “remains to be seen,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supports abortion rights.
“Based on some of the conversations we’ve had in our conference, there’s been a lot of discussion about the political implications of a vote on abortion that would basically federalize, outlaw abortions. It would be viewed as not politically helpful,” Murkowski said of the desire among Senate GOP colleagues to steer clear of a national abortion debate.
A Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss party strategy said Johnson would commit political malpractice if he does anything to further elevate abortion as an issue in next year’s Senate and House races.
“He’s now got 221 people he’s got to figure out how to get consensus from, and [abortion] is just not a consensus issue now,” the senator said, referring to the size of the House GOP conference.
“That’s not a fully uniting position. I think what he keeps looking for — if I were him, and I think he is — are fully uniting positions such as Israel [aid] with an offset. Maybe Ukraine with [border] policy changes,” the lawmaker added.
Johnson acknowledged to Fox’s Hannity that Congress is deeply divided on abortion policy.
“We argued my entire career for 25 years that the states should have the right to do this,” he said when asked about setting abortion policy. “There’s no national consensus among the people on what to do with that issue on a federal level for certain.”
He called Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case establishing a constitutional right to abortion, “probably [the] worst Supreme Court opinion” and hailed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned it as a “reset.”
Democrats relentlessly attacked Republican candidates on abortion during the 2022 election, a strategy that appeared to pay off when they expanded their Senate majority to 51 seats and didn’t lose as many House seats as initially forecast.
Johnson’s counterpart, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), says the abortion debate should be left entirely to the states in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade. He has argued that national abortion legislation has no chance of mustering the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.
Other anti-abortion Republican senators share that view.
“I don’t know what they’ll do in the House. My preference is that the turning over of Roe v. Wade was designed to allow the states to make that decision. It may be messy in terms of lots of states having different points of view, but eventually you’ll end up with a national consensus about where it should be based on what the states find works for them,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
Rounds warned of a national political backlash if Republicans in Congress push strict national abortion laws.
“None of this is going to be perfect,” he said. “If you go all-in and you have an absolute, strict abortion bill — and if it doesn’t pass muster and people return it — they may very well go the wrong direction and have a very liberal law that doesn’t save lives.”
But some Republican senators argue that Congress should set national standards for abortion, despite the political risks of pushing an issue that Democrats will try to use as a bludgeon in the campaign.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told The Hill that he will introduce a national 15-week abortion bill, something he said he would like to do before the end of the year.
“I think it’s a very reasonable position. Puts our nation in line with the civilized world,” he said of a 15-week abortion ban “with exceptions” for rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother.
Asked about criticism from fellow Senate Republicans who say taking up abortion legislation before the election would be a serious political mistake, Graham said lawmakers should tackle important issues.
“Democracy, you know, important issues,” he said with a short laugh when asked about pushback from GOP colleagues. “The Democratic position is to allow abortion on demand up until the moment of birth.”
Senate Democrats last year tried to pass legislation to codify the right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade, which previously allowed states to restrict abortion after the point of fetal viability. The bill included language to allow abortion after fetal viability if a doctor determines it’s necessary to protect the life or health of a mother. Senate Republicans blocked the legislation.
Abortions in the third trimester are rare and usually reserved for when a fetus has a serious abnormality.
McConnell expressed his displeasure with Graham last year when the South Carolina senator unveiled his 15-week abortion ban shortly before the midterm election.
McConnell made it clear that he wouldn’t bring Graham’s bill to the floor if Republicans controlled the Senate majority.