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Where efforts stand on Capitol Hill to codify abortion protections

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Today, a referendum in Kansas will determine whether the state's constitution is amended to allow lawmakers to restrict or even outright ban abortion. It's the first ballot test on reproductive rights since Roe was overturned, and it comes as a small group of bipartisan senators on Capitol Hill are trying to enshrine the right to abortion in federal law. Joining us now to talk about that is one of the senators working on this very bill - that's Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia. And good morning to you, Senator.

TIM KAINE: Asma, great to be with you today.

KHALID: So Senator, for the past few weeks, you have been working with your Republican colleagues, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, on this bill to codify abortion rights. And Senator, I hope you do not mind me potentially pouring cold water on your efforts...

KAINE: (Laughter).

KHALID: ...But I don't really see how you get to 60 votes - how you are able to pass this in the law. So help me understand your path.

KAINE: You bet, Asma. Well, I'll get to the punch line - we didn't have 60 votes for a gun safety bill either a few months ago, but then the tragedies of Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, led us there. We had to do something. I think the post-Dobbs reality of the United States, where 10-year-olds are having to be smuggled across borders to receive care after a rape, is going to lead us to a position where we cannot do nothing, but must enshrine a federal guarantee. So that's what I think is going to happen. I think I see where the puck is going on this. You're right - we don't have 60 votes today. But just as in the gun bill, I think the shocking developments post Dobbs will get us there.

So I did begin working with colleagues on this in May. We had a bill that I voted for - the Women's Health Protection Act - in February. It only got 49 votes. We set it up for another vote in May, and it was clear to me it was only going to get 49 votes. And I really worried about the effect of sending a message that less than a majority of the Senate wanted to protect reproductive freedom. And I also felt like we had left some votes on the table. So I started to work with colleagues who sincerely wanted to codify the holdings of Roe and other cases - Griswold - but had not voted for the Women's Health Protection Act. And I said, how could we come up with a bill that you'd feel comfortable with? That was the origin of it. And with the introduction of the bill yesterday, even though there's differences in wording, it's now clear that a majority of the Senate wants to provide a statutory guarantee of reproductive freedom that would essentially match what the law was before the Dobbs decision.

KHALID: So Senator, it sounds like - and you mentioned this bill earlier in May that only got 49 votes, including the fact that it did not get a vote from your own fellow Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. It sounds like some of the concerns from a few folks at that time period was that that bill would expand abortion access. Do you face and are you facing similar objections to this latest proposal?

KAINE: No. That does not seem to be an objection, and I'll tell you why. We really tried, with the Reproductive Freedom Act, to basically look at the Dobbs decision, and then this bill was like a time machine. What would we need to do in federal statute to take the legal guarantee to where it was the day before Dobbs was decided? Now, not everybody liked that reality, but it has the benefit of the fact that women at least had been able to rely on it for about 50 years. So the Women's Health Protection Act was sort of put together in a different way. It was written before Dobbs. It tried to imagine - well, first, what are states doing to mess around with abortion rights? Can we stop that? And what might we imagine they would do in the future? Can we stop that? We really wrote our bill a different way after Dobbs. What do we need to do to take federal law to the place it was the day before Dobbs and put that guarantee into statutory form since the Supreme Court has abandoned constitutional protection of reproductive freedom?

KHALID: So Senator, I want to ask you about one of the points of criticism I have heard about the bill that you all are putting forward because even those on the left who would like to see abortion access made into federal law have been, you know, somewhat skeptical of this effort. I was struck by a statement from the head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who said that this bill was a, quote, "political stunt," and "unless these senators are willing to end the filibuster to pass this measure" - her words - "there's no reason to take it seriously." How do you respond?

KAINE: Well, nobody who knows me believes I engage in stunts. I don't. And actually, if you want to look at our bill and compare it to something, the pro-choice community is advocating a ballot referendum in Michigan - the Reproductive Freedom for All act. You talked about the referendum today in Kansas. There's one on the ballot in Michigan in November. And our bill tracks not identically, but very, very close to a Michigan referendum that pro-choice activists are promoting right now. We really tried to stick close to that. Now, I will say about the comment - we don't have 60 right now.

KHALID: Yep. Yeah.

KAINE: That's true. That is true. But, again, I've been here for 10 years, and I've seen other efforts where we didn't have 60, but then reality changed, and we were able to get there.

KHALID: Senator, we do have to wrap. I'm so sorry. But thank you very much. We really appreciate you taking the time.

KAINE: You bet.

KHALID: That's Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.