Washington — Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked a pair of Republican bills that would ban most late-term abortions and threaten prison for doctors who don't try saving the lives of infants born alive during abortions.
The measures have been defeated multiple times in recent years, but Senate Republicans pushed for renewed votes to enable GOP lawmakers to make an election-year appeal to conservative voters.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of bowing to "the radical demands of the far left" to "drown out common sense" and the views of millions of Americans.
"It almost defies belief that an entire political party could find cause to object to this basic protection for babies,'' the Kentucky Republican said.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer blasted McConnell for taking up the Senate's time on what he called "fake, dishonest and extreme legislation that has nothing to do with improving the lives of ordinary Americans.''
Noting that existing laws protect infants, Schumer said the GOP bills would, in effect, "criminalize" women's reproductive care and intimidate health care providers.
"Putting these already defeated bills up for a show vote is not a good faith attempt to improve the lives of ... American women,'' the New York Democrat said. "Every single Senate Republican knows that these bills cannot and will not pass. But they're putting them on the floor anyway to pander to the hard right. And to cover up the fact that they won't provide good health care for women.''
Senators voted 56-41 for the born-alive bill, and 53-44 for a separate measure banning most abortions after 20 weeks. Both tallies were short of the 60 votes needed to end Democratic delaying tactics and force a Senate vote.
Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin from West Virginia were the only lawmakers to cross party lines on the born-alive bill. Jones and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska opposed the late-term abortion ban.
Three senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president - Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota - did not cast votes.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the Senate debate was not about passing laws or even health care. "It is really about Republicans' crass political calculation that they can fire up their far-right base with an all-out war against the constitutionally protected right to safe, legal abortion,'' she said.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the bill he sponsored was not about limiting access to abortion at all. Instead, the bill is intended to make sure that every newborn baby "has a fighting chance - whether she's born in a labor and delivery ward or whether she's born in an abortion clinic."
Sasse's bill would make it a crime to deny care to a baby that's survived an abortion. "Are we a country that protects babies that are alive, born outside the womb after having survived a botched abortion?'' he asked.
Or is the United States a country "that says it's OK to just sit back and allow that baby to die? It's a plain and simple question and we all know what the right answer is,'' Sasse said. "This isn't a hard call."
A separate bill sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would essentially ban abortion after 20 weeks, the point at which many scientists say an unborn child can feel pain.
Graham said he believes a majority of Americans oppose allowing abortion in the fifth month of pregnancy. The United States is currently one of seven countries in the world that permit elective abortion after 20 weeks.
"The United States should not be in that club,'' Graham said.
The two votes marked the latest instance in which Republicans have tried to go on offense on the issue of abortion and put Democratic lawmakers who support abortion rights in an uncomfortable position.
"It's hard to believe that, in 21st century America, the life of a baby more than halfway through pregnancy is considered up for debate, but it's true,'' said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that works to elect anti-abortion candidates.
Opponents, noting the rarity of such births and citing laws making it a crime to kill newborn babies, said the GOP bills were unnecessary. They called the proposals part of a push by abortion opponents to curb access to the procedure and intimidate doctors who perform it, and said late-term abortions generally occur when the infant is considered incapable of surviving after birth.
Only 1% of all abortions occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Abortions during the final weeks are rarer still.
Doctors' and abortion-rights groups say it is extremely unusual for live infants to be born during attempted late-term abortions, which they say usually occur when the baby is extremely deformed or deemed unable to survive after birth. In such cases, families sometimes decide they want to induce labor so they can spend time with the infant before it dies.
"Families across the country have actually faced these decisions, have spoken out to make clear politicians should have no part in them,'' Murray said. "Pressing for these awful bills year after year may be nothing more than a cynical political tactic for Republicans, but passing them would be an unconscionable exercise in cruelty.''