Democrats on the 2020 campaign trail are emphasizing their support for expanded abortion rights, but in Washington, House Democrats are preparing to retain a decadeslong ban on most federal funding for abortions.
Presidential candidates from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris have all denounced the funding restrictions under what is known as the Hyde Amendment. Harris has said it targets poor women who rely on federal health care benefits, Warren says she would “lead the fight to have it overturned” and Biden now says that backing Hyde violates his belief that health care is a human right.
But these Democrats, along with most Democrats who served in Congress since the provision was attached regularly to spending bills, have a history of voting for spending bills that include the Hyde Amendment.
The House is set to vote Thursday on a bill that would extend the prohibition for at least another year. That is creating extra tension for the more than one dozen Democrats who are splitting time between campaigning for their party’s nomination and legislating in a politically divided Washington.
Origin of Hyde Amendment
Named for its author, Illinois Republican congressman Henry Hyde, the 1976 vote was a response to Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, which was decided three years earlier.
At the time, Democrats had a wide majority in the House. More than 100 Democrats voted for the amendment when it came up for a standalone vote, providing more than half of the support for the addition to that year’s labor and health bill.
Since then, it has been baked into annual spending bills. This year it is part of a broad package that funds the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services as well as the departments of defense, energy and state.
Democratic leaders blame divided government
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is one of many abortion rights supporters in Congress who have resigned themselves to supporting spending bills that include the Hyde restrictions.
“I do not think it is good public policy, and I wish we never had a Hyde Amendment, but it is the law of the land right now,” Pelosi told an audience this week at an event sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “I don’t see that there is an opportunity to get rid of it with the current occupant of the White House and some in the United States Senate.”
The health portion of the House Democrats’ first major spending bill is loaded with several major Democratic priorities, including more than $2 billion for Alzheimer’s research and more than $3 billion to fight AIDS.
That’s why leaders tamped down an effort by freshman Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley to strip the Hyde Amendment from this year’s funding bill.
House Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters this week that she wishes Hyde didn’t exist. She explained that the party is now overwhelmingly in favor of abortion rights and most members would prefer to get rid of Hyde, but spending bills need bipartisan support to avoid another government shutdown.
“You know, we are where we are,” Jayapal said. “People don’t want to throw that into an appropriations bill that has to go to a Republican Senate and be signed by a Republican president.”
The view from the campaign trail
Democrats in Congress acknowledge that presidential candidates have to take a stand. Biden was recently forced to come out against Hyde after abortion rights supporters — and other Democratic candidates — attacked the former vice president for publicly backing the ban.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said a number of the candidates running for president are in the same position as Biden.
“I believe that every single candidate for president who served in either the House or the Senate — every single one of them — voted for an appropriations bill that contains the Hyde Amendment,” Jeffries said at a press conference.
The list includes Harris, Biden, Warren and nearly a dozen other candidates.
But not all candidates accept that framing. In an interview this week with The NPR Politics Podcast, Harris said supporting spending bills isn’t the same as supporting Hyde.
“Let’s be clear, I’ve not voted for the Hyde Amendment,” Harris said. “The Hyde Amendment is the law. And so it has been attached to other funding bills, and until we repeal it, which is what I am in favor of, it will be attached to federal government funding bills. That’s the problem with the Hyde amendment.”