How Democrats Passed the COVID Relief Package Without Abortion Funding Restrictions

Lauretta Brown

Lauretta Brown Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.

The Senate’s arcane rules regarding the reconciliation process provided the mechanism whereby the narrow Democratic majority was able to circumvent a potential GOP filibuster.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) walks with staff and reporters after a news conference with House Democrats regarding the upcoming vote on the American Rescue Plan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) walks with staff and reporters after a news conference with House Democrats regarding the upcoming vote on the American Rescue Plan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday. (photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images)

The House is poised to vote Wednesday on the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021 which will fund stimulus checks, vaccine distribution, and — to the dismay of the pro-life movement — potentially abortion. 

The bill did not contain the longstanding, 44-year-old Hyde Amendment restriction on taxpayer-funded abortion. As Democrats increasingly take aim at such abortion restrictions in spending bills, the passage of the relief package without them is significant. The Senate was able to exclude abortion restrictions in the bill and still push it through the reconciliation process, which permits them to enact legislation on revenues, federal spending and debt limits with a slim 51-vote majority rather than a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. This method of advancing legislation along partisan lines could be used again to expand abortion funding.

The COVID relief package passed the Senate in a 50-49 vote Saturday with no Republicans supporting the bill and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, not voting due to a family emergency. Notably, self-identified pro-life Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, W.Va., Tim Kaine, Va., and Bob Casey, Pa., all backed the bill despite its lack of restrictions on abortion funding.  

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., attempted earlier to include Hyde Amendment language in the bill but did not receive the 60 votes needed for inclusion although Sens. Manchin, Casey, and Kaine — who are Catholic — did all vote to include the language. Pro-life Susan B. Anthony List leader Marjorie Dannenfelser praised “the three Senate Democrats who stood up to extremists in their party and voted with all their Republican colleagues in favor of Hyde protections, showing that life is not a partisan issue.” However, the three Democrats ultimately voted through the bill and Dannenfelser said “the so-called American Rescue Plan is disastrous for unborn children and their mothers.”

Sen. Manchin said “this COVID-19 relief package is what West Virginia needs to put this pandemic behind us once and for all. I am proud to vote for this relief package and I look forward to seeing the President sign this bill into law.” Sen. Kaine commented, “because of this bill, millions of Virginians will receive a stimulus check, unemployment benefits will last through the summer, and 85,000 of the Commonwealth’s children will be lifted out of poverty.” Sen. Casey stated after the vote that “this is a significant investment in putting the virus behind us and opening schools and helping a lot of individuals, a lot of families across the country that are hurting.” 

Lankford pointed out that Hyde protections had been included in all of the past COVID relief packages. “Congress has passed five bipartisan bills in the past 12 months related to the COVID-19 pandemic that target relief to those who need it most. All five bills had the normal language that prevents the use of taxpayers’ dollars to pay for abortions,” he said. “But, now Democrats have determined that this partisan COVID bill should direct American tax dollars to abortions. Funding during a pandemic should save lives, not take lives. Abortion funding should not be in a COVID-19 pandemic bill. This shouldn’t be controversial.” 

Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, said the relief bill “has the potential to be the largest expansion of abortion funding since Obamacare.”

The reconciliation process that permitted the bill to pass with a simple majority has been used in the past to circumvent a filibuster when one party has narrow control of the Senate. The process was used in 2017 to pass the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and in 2010 under the Obama administration to enact a companion bill to the Affordable Care Act. The process has significant limits, however, including that it is permitted only once per fiscal year and it can be used only for laws related to taxes or spending. 

However, as many Democrats push for eliminating the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority, comments from Sen. Manchin, who is opposed to eliminating the filibuster, could signal that reconciliation could be used in the future to push through other partisan legislation. When discussing H.R.1, a campaign finance bill that has raised grave religious freedom and pro-life concerns, Manchin told NBC’s Meet the Press, “I’m not going to change my mind on the filibuster. I will change my mind if we need to go to reconciliation to where we have to get something done, once I know they have processed into it.”

“But I’m not going to go there until my Republican friends have the ability to have their say also,” he added. “And I’m hoping they will get involved to the point where we have 10 of them that will work with 50 of us.” The existing limits on reconciliation would not permit H.R.1 to be considered, however; as Politico noted, “It’s not clear how Manchin envisioned that H.R. 1 could potentially be passed through reconciliation, as it is not budget-related, and Democrats’ proposed minimum wage increase was tripped up by the process’ strict rules and left on the cutting-room floor.”

Democrats could get creative in other ways, as they attempt to get around the limits of their narrow majority in the Senate to advance the Biden agenda. While Sen. Manchin has come down strongly against eliminating the filibuster, he recently discussed potentially requiring that a senator must be present and talking on the Senate floor to filibuster. “The filibuster should be painful,” Manchin told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “We’ve made it more comfortable over the years, not intentionally; maybe it just evolved into that. Maybe it has to be more painful. Maybe you have to stand there.”