With the conservative judges on the Supreme Court seemingly poised to finally overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats are finally getting serious about codifying the long-standing precedent into law. And at least one Republican senator says she wants to help do just that — emphasis on “says.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is on record supporting the right to an abortion. After Wednesday’s oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the case that might nullify that right in many states, Collins’ office issued a statement saying she “believes that the protections in the Roe and [Planned Parenthood v. Casey] decisions should be passed into law.” It added that Collins has “had some conversations with her colleagues about this and is open to further discussions.”
It’s a nice statement to make, and sounds very supportive of abortion rights. But as Collins surely knows, there’s no way that what she says she believes will come to be. First, the only bill that’s currently in play that would codify Roe is the House-passed Women's Health Protection Act. But when that bill comes to a vote in the Senate, Collins has already said that she won’t support it.
"Unfortunately, the House Democrats’ bill goes far beyond codifying Roe and Casey,” Collins spokesperson Annie Clark told NBC News in an email. “For example, their legislation would severely weaken protections afforded to health care providers who refuse to perform abortions on religious or moral grounds.”
Even if there was a proposal floating around that Collins would support, it’s not getting through the Senate. Not with the filibuster still firmly in place, demanding the support of 60 senators to even debate a bill. Not when abolishing Roe has the litmus test for every GOP judicial nominee for almost a half-century — no matter what those nominees say about “precedent.”
Collins’ position really highlights both the pitfalls of the filibuster and the ways it can be exploited. Defenders of the rule say that it’s about ensuring that the minority’s voice is heard and tamping down partisanship. But in reality, the filibuster blocks potential bipartisan deals before they can even be brought to the floor.
As it stands, the Senate’s version of the Women’s Health Protection Act has 48 cosponsors. (Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and Bob Casey, D-Penn., are the only holdouts so far.) In a world without the filibuster, the kind of narrower bill to codify Roe that could win over Collins would likely also bring along Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, giving it the majority needed to pass. That in turn might get the two outlier Democrats to join as well — it’s easier to vote for something already guaranteed to become law than to be the vote that pushes it over the edge.
As things stand, Collins would have to drag nine other GOP senators along with her to cut off a filibuster — something that Murkowski has failed to do even on restoring the Voting Rights Act to full strength. That seems downright impossible even for any stripped-down bill that Democrats would also back.
Collins knows that’s the case. And she has shown absolutely no willingness to change the status quo. In 2017, Collins was one of the lead authors of a letter to Senate leadership urging them to keep the 60-vote threshold for legislation in place. Preserving the filibuster was one of the explicit goals of Republican senators who joined Collins’ ultimately unsuccessful effort to work across the aisle on Covid relief.
With that being the state of play, Collins’ statement — already vague and aspirational — seems much more cynical. Sure, she’d love to protect Roe from being overturned entirely. But she doesn’t support the Democrats’ bill that would do that, nor is she in favor of making it so any other bill that supports abortion can pass the Senate. No matter that she voted to place both Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch on the court, giving assurances that they’d keep Roe in place as “settled law.”
Collins’ bluff is an easy one to make when the filibuster is there as a safety net. Even if she votes for cloture on the Women’s Health Protection Act — which she won’t — her hands are conveniently tied, you see. And when the court finally does what Republicans have sought for decades, well, I’m sure she’ll have another statement lined up to express her deep, deep sadness at this entirely unpreventable turn of events.CORRECTION (May 3, 2022, 10:30 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated Sen. Susan Collins' vote on Justice Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court. Collins voted against Barrett, not for her.)