U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas is lone Democrat to vote against federal bill protecting abortion rights

In a bid to nullify Texas’ controversial near-total abortion ban, the U.S. House on Friday passed a reproductive rights bill that would codify into federal law the right to an abortion. It was a starkly partisan vote, with a Texas Democrat joining with the Republicans as the lone crossover vote.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, voted against the bill, but otherwise it passed almost completely along partisan lines in a 218-211 vote.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is unlikely to pass.

The new Texas law effectively bans abortions around six weeks, before most people are even aware they are pregnant. The state anti-abortion organization Texas Right To Life claims that at least 2,000 abortions have been prevented in Texas since the law went into effect earlier this month.

Legal experts and reproductive health advocates say the Texas law’s unique method of enforcement allowing anyone to sue abortion providers or people assisting pregnant women in obtaining the procedure — rather than relying on the government to enforce the ban — has so far helped Senate Bill 8 sidestep Roe v. Wade and subsequent court rulings.

The federal Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. Judy Chu of California, ensures protections for abortion seekers and providers. The bill would “permit health care providers to provide abortion services without limitations or requirements that single out the provision of abortion services.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, spoke on the House Floor on Tuesday, urging the Senate to support the legislation.

“People are suffering with the Texas law,” Jackson Lee said. “It has no place in society. It is a violation of the constitution of the United States. And it should be quashed with the Roe v. Wade codification. I ask the other body to support us in that.”

But freshman U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, an Irving Republican, delivered an emotional floor speech ahead of the vote recounting a miscarriage while holding a model of a fetus. Describing the pain of that experience, Van Duyne suggested that the loss of a child has “lifelong consequences.”

“The party that claims to protect women is actively supporting policies that devalue the lives of women and children across the globe,” she said of the Democrats.

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the Texas restrictions to remain in effect, though it has yet to rule on the law’s constitutionality.

The White House expressed its support of the federal legislation in a statement Tuesday, calling the Texas law a glaring violation of the landmark 1973 decision made in Roe.

“The Texas law significantly impairs women’s access to critical reproductive health care, particularly affecting communities of color, individuals with low incomes, and those who live in rural or underserved communities,” the statement said. “The law also turns private citizens into bounty hunters who are empowered to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion, including family members, faith leaders, those providing transportation, and health care providers.”

Still, the federal bill is likely to face long odds in the Senate. While Democrats hold a slim majority in the upper chamber, the bill needs 60 votes to override a potential filibuster, a procedure enabling senators to prevent or delay debate on legislation. It is highly unlikely Democrats will be able to pick up enough votes to overcome the Senate procedure.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of a few remaining Republican senators who back abortion rights, denounced the bill yesterday, calling the legislation’s language “extreme.” She said the bill would “severely weaken” religious protections for health care providers established by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

And two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania have yet to sign on to the upper chamber’s companion to the House bill.

A Democratic challenger to Cuellar, Jessica Cisneros, issued a statement immediately after the vote.

“Once again, Henry Cuellar has refused to stand up for South Texans’ reproductive freedom and the constitutional right to abortion care,” she said. “Even after our state’s Republican leaders just passed the country’s most extreme ban—ending almost all abortion access in Texas with no exceptions after 6 weeks—our Congressman refuses to defend us and our reproductive rights.”

Cuellar’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

This push by the House to codify Roe v. Wade is the latest effort by federal officials to combat Texas’ ban. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit this month suing the state over the law, arguing that the ban undermines a right to abortion recognized by federal law.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the ban a “scheme intended to nullify the U.S. constitution.” The federal lawsuit aiming to block enforcement of the ban is scheduled for a hearing on Oct. 1.

On the state level, separate lawsuits have been filed against Dr. Alan Braid, a San Antonio doctor who admitted to performing an abortion prohibited under the new law.

The Women’s Health Protection Act is yet another Congressional bill responding to state legislation enacted by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature. Earlier this year, the House also passed bills aimed at overriding Texas’ new voting restrictions law.

“Texas has been kind of the poster child for some really dangerous legislation this year. And so I think that a lot remains to be seen with what the Senate decides to do in terms of the filibuster,” said Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat and cosponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act. “I don’t know now exactly what the course will be. But I think there’s a lot of discussion going on about how important it is to protect the constitutional rights of Americans.”

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