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GOP faces challenges on how to legislate and message around abortion rights

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Abortion is once again center stage in American politics. Late last night, Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law a bill that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. In D.C., we're waiting to see whether the Supreme Court will take up a review of a circuit court ruling that the abortion pill, mifepristone, cannot be administered after the seventh week of pregnancy. Both leave Republicans facing a challenge about how to message and how to legislate on abortion rights. To help us break all this down, we have NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro with us.

Thanks for being here again.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

FADEL: So, Claudia, I'm going to start with you. Republicans in Congress have the majority, but definitely not a super-comfortable majority. Some would argue that's because of the party's stance on abortion. So how are they messaging on the issue now?

GRISALES: We're seeing a bit of a mixed bag when we hear from members talking about this issue. Some are focused on their base who want to see stiffer limits on abortion access while other more moderate members are speaking out. We're really seeing this divide play out in the House. And this includes South Carolina's Nancy Mace, one of those more moderate members, who on CNN said recently that this is a losing argument with voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY MACE: We are getting it wrong on this issue. We've got to show some compassion to women, especially women who've been raped. We've got to show compassion on the abortion issue because, by and large, the - most of Americans aren't with us on this issue.

GRISALES: At the same time, many Republicans are not on the same page with Mace. So what we're seeing in many cases is that they're not all on the same page when it comes to Republicans, altogether, when it comes to how far they should go in terms of legislating to limit access to abortions.

FADEL: Interesting. Domenico, is Mace right? I mean, Republicans have long campaigned on limiting abortion access. Now that it's a reality, where is public opinion on the issue?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, abortion politics and how people feel about it is very nuanced. But, you know, politics doesn't exactly lend itself to nuance very well. But, you know, most people are in favor of some restrictions on abortion. It just depends on how far people want to go. And that's kind of part of the problem for Republicans, is a lot of these state laws that they're pushing are outside of what the mainstream or the majority of people are in favor of. You know, a Public Religion Research Institute survey released earlier this year found that almost two-thirds of people believe that abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances. That's up 10 points since 2010. And the most signifying event here wasn't really the Dobbs ruling last year; it was the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice, in 2020.

FADEL: Now, Claudia, in NPR's reporting from the campaign trail last year after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it seemed like Republican congressional candidates were reluctant to talk about their position on abortion. Do you think that's what we'll see in 2024?

GRISALES: Yeah. So far, when we're seeing hints of how they'll approach their campaigns, I think we're seeing a repeat of that now. We will see, as we have in the past, that Republicans will talk about limiting access to abortion, but more and more in more general terms, publicly supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But as for the next steps for legislating, that's less clear in terms of where they stand. We're seeing a lot of that being taken up by the states, by the courts.

We did see House Republicans, for example, at the start of this congressional session, pass two anti-abortion bills, but they were mostly limited in scope and didn't go as far as taking up legislation that would have more broader impact. And so it's largely performative because Republicans know they don't have a chance in terms of moving these bills out of the House with a Democratic-controlled Senate, with a Democratic president. At the same time, we know Democrats are finding this to be an energizing issue for their voters, the vast - with the vast majority of the country supporting some kind of access to abortions. We did see that play out in the midterms with Republicans not performing as well as they had hoped. And so Republicans are in a difficult position here.

And, you know, circling back to Mace's comments that we played earlier, she also talked about limiting access to the abortion drug and essentially said that we should ignore this federal judge's ruling on that. But as Domenico mentioned, Republicans who do represent voters who support these new limits will struggle, you know, in terms of finding agreement when we look at the polling and what they're up against.

FADEL: Now, that's Congress. Domenico, this is, of course, going to be an issue in the presidential election, as it always is. And we mentioned earlier that DeSantis is making moves on abortion access in Florida, and he's a potential candidate. So what does that say about his possible campaign?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, they're basically - you know, when you look at all the Republicans, they're jockeying for the activist base. I mean, DeSantis himself had been criticized by activists on the right because he was supportive and signed a 15-week ban - and they thought that didn't go far enough - when, you know, there's a lot more public opinion on Republicans' side when it comes to 15-week bans. Although, there's a pretty sharp split. But when it comes to a six-week ban, far less so.

FADEL: So that's DeSantis and what he's been doing, but what are other candidates or potential candidates saying?

MONTANARO: Yeah. We saw South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, for example, form an exploratory committee this week, and he's known to be pretty conservative and religious. He said this week that he would actually find a - sign a federal 20-week ban, saying that he would definitely do that. And he was trying to criticize Democrats for being extreme on the subject. But, you know, when you look at most of what Democrats want to do or Republicans, very different and not - Republicans in their primary, not really aiming to the middle.

FADEL: NPR's Domenico Montanaro and Claudia Grisales.

Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.