Republicans block bill to protect women who travel to other states for abortions

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic bill Thursday that would protect the rights of women to travel to other states to access abortion care legally.

The author of the Freedom to Travel for Health Care Act, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, requested consent to quickly pass the legislation but met resistance from Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who objected on behalf of Republicans.

“There’s a child in this conversation, as well,” Lankford said on the Senate floor, accusing Democrats of seeking “to inflame — to raise the what-ifs.” He said proponents of the bill should ask themselves: “Does the child in the womb have the right to travel in their future?”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called the legislation “radical” and warned against promoting “abortion tourism” by businesses.

Cortez Masto responded: “The issue here before us is exactly a states’ rights issue. … All my legislation says is respect my state.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., at a news conference Tuesday about her bill to specifically allow women to travel for abortions.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP

The eight-page bill would make it unlawful for a person or a government official to prevent or punish traveling across state lines “to receive or provide reproductive health care that is legal in that State.” It also would bar states from imposing laws that prohibit women from traveling to other states to get abortions.

Cortez Masto said in a statement, “Anti-choice state legislators in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas have said they want to pass bills to fine or prosecute women who travel for health care.”

The House is poised to vote Friday on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, that would protect interstate travel for women seeking abortions where they are legal. The measure is expected to pass, but its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where at least 10 Republican votes would be needed to defeat a filibuster.

Cortez Masto, who is one of the most politically vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this fall, accused Republicans who oppose her bill of “allowing state legislators to reach across state lines to control not just what happens in their states, but what happens in every state across this country, and to punish women for exercising their fundamental rights.”

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” she said.

Despite the GOP objection to passing Cortez Masto’s bill, Senate Republicans appear divided over whether women should retain the right to travel to get abortions. Some in the party argue that travel can’t or shouldn’t be restricted, although there was limited GOP interest in backing the Democratic bill.

“No state has the right to prohibit travel,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in an interview, adding that the right stems from the Constitution and has been recognized by the Supreme Court.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm, said Wednesday he hadn’t read the Democrats’ bill but broadly believes Americans should be allowed to travel, including in circumstances like accessing legal abortion.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., whose state has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, said he is “pro-life” and doesn’t expect the Senate to pass legislation on interstate travel.

“In this particular case, I think once the states have made their decisions, I think you’ll find that most of them will recognize that they can’t stop an individual from freely traveling from one state to another,” he said.

Asked whether women should have the option to travel for abortions, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told NBC News to contact his office, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he would reserve judgment until he studies Supreme Court precedent on interstate travel.

The issue has become a rallying cry for numerous Democrats after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, paving the way for states to outlaw abortion.

Republicans considering interstate travel restrictions “want to hold women captive in their own states,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a co-sponsor of Cortez Masto’s bill. “They want to punish women and anyone who might help them for exercising their constitutional right to travel within our country, to get the services that they need in another state. I hope everyone really observes how extreme and how radical and how un-American that is.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Cortez Masto is surveying Republicans to see whether her bill can win the 60 Senate votes needed to defeat a filibuster. He said Democrats might bring it up for a roll call vote to put all Republicans on the record.

“There might be some Republican votes on that,” he said.

The issue has gotten elevated attention after a man was arrested on charges of raping a 10-year-old girl, who became pregnant and was reported to have traveled from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion.

Kaine said there could be more instances like that.

“With the news about the sad reality of this 10-year-old having to be hustled across state lines so that she could get an abortion for being raped, I mean, they’re going to go after the people who are helping kids like her?” he said.

Democrats hope the issue galvanizes voters ahead of what is shaping up to be a tough midterm election this fall for the party in power. While Republicans have sought to paint Democrats who oppose any limits on abortion as outside the mainstream, objections to interstate travel could backfire politically on the GOP.

“We’re seeing this has dramatically affected the polls in a number of our races,” Kaine said. “My gut would tell me this is a little bit more potent in a midterm than in a presidential” election.