Harry Reid

Washington, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Depending on how the chips fall on Election Day, Democrats may wind up next year with a leader who is at odds with the majority of Democrats on one of its most sacred issues: abortion rights.

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, a practicing Mormon from Nevada who often sides with Republicans on the issue of abortion, may get an opportunity to climb the leadership ladder to the top rung next year if Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota fails to win reelection on Nov. 2.

Daschle has a mixed record on abortion. He earned a 50-percent rating in 2003 from NARAL Pro-Choice America, but has not used his leadership post to promote an anti-choice agenda in the Senate. In fact, he has mounted an unprecedented filibuster of some of President Bush’s more conservative judicial appointees, a sign that he would object to similarly-minded nominees to the Supreme Court.

Recent polls show that Daschle’s campaign against John Thune–a Republican who served in the U.S. Congress from 1997-2003–is a dead heat. Reid is viewed as the likely successor to Daschle, whether he loses his seat this year or retires from it in the future.

Some social conservatives on the other side of the political aisle see that as a positive step toward their short-term goal of outlawing certain kinds of abortions and, in the longer term, of overturning the controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

“It will be very positive, even though at the core, the caucus is very much in the other camp,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who carries the torch for the Christian Right in the Senate. “That would bode well for us.”

Minimal Immediate Effect

If Reid ascends to the leadership post, the immediate legislative impact would be minimal, according to senators from both parties. Most lawmakers have decided how they will vote on issues relating to abortion before they even arrive in Washington and are unwilling to change their positions once they win office.

But an anti-abortion Democratic leader in the Senate would open the party–both in and outside of Washington–to more socially conservative members, Brownback said. That, he added, could have a longer-term effect of moving the country toward an anti-choice position. “It’s not going to change the heart of their caucus, but I just think the people coming in are seeing more pro-life legislators” and that is good for the movement, he said.

Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Texas) told Women’s eNews that having Reid at the helm of the Democratic Party would enhance the image of the anti-choice movement. But according to Cornyn, who opposes abortion rights, Reid’s record on abortion might mean that his fellow Democrats disqualify him for advancement.

Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a staunch advocate of abortion rights, dismissed the idea that members of her party would impose an abortion litmus test. Reid, she said, “does what I believe is the right thing to do, which is make his own personal choice based on his own faith, but yet respects other people’s right to do the same thing.”

Activists Unfazed

Reproductive-rights supporters backed up her assertion. They said they doubted their agenda would suffer under anti-choice leadership in the Senate, even though that is the chamber that has jurisdiction over confirmation of nominees to the federal judiciary, which is one of their main priorities. Activists are confident Reid would lead in the way that Daschle has if he were to win his party’s top job.

While abortion rights advocates are concerned that the current crop of anti-choice leaders will continue to chip away at a women’s right to abortion, they are not so concerned about Reid, said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women. “I believe we could work with him,” she said. “We disagree on some important issues but I believe he would be fair.”

Elizabeth Cavendish, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, agreed. “While we fully expect the Democratic leader to win this November, we believe that the Senate Democratic leadership’s traditional respect for women’s rights would continue regardless of the outcome of the elections.”

Even some anti-choice activists are skeptical that Reid would be their ally if he moved into his caucus’ top job. Douglas Johnson, legislative director at the National Right to Life, said Reid cannot be counted on to side with his organization as assistant leader and would be less likely to do so as leader.

“You’ll find some pro-life votes by Senator Reid but you’ll find on the matters of most consequence he sides with the pro-abortion bloc in the Senate,” he said. “Senator Reid is not an ally of the pro-life cause.”

Low and High Marks

NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., gave Reid a legislative score of 29 percent for 2003, one of the lowest scores earned by Senate Democrats. On the flip side, he earned a 55 percent score from the National Right to Life during the same period, one of the highest ratings given to Senate Democrats by the anti-choice group.

Reid earned those scores after voting in favor of a bill that would ban procedures used after the 12th week of a pregnancy that opponents call partial-birth abortion and another one that would give equal legal protections to a pregnant woman and her fetus if injured in a violent offense. Both bills were signed into law by President Bush during in this congressional session. Reid has also in his career opposed legislation expressing support for Roe v. Wade.

On the other hand, he has supported the Democratic filibuster of several conservative nominees to the federal bench.

He also took pro-choice stands in votes regarding the use of HIV/AIDS funds for abstinence only programs and the so-called global gag rule, which bars distribution of U.S. family planning funds to clinics in other countries that provide abortion or abortion counseling or lobby for change in abortion policies, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Still, the possibility that a future Democratic leader might oppose, in general, one of the cornerstones of the party’s social policy platform may come as a shock to the Democratic base, which has grown accustomed, over the last quarter century, to an uninterrupted line of congressional leaders who protected abortion laws from attacks from the right.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–
Decision 2004: Our Candidates, Our Choice: