POLITICO Playbook: The new dimensions of the abortion debate

POLITICO Playbook: The new dimensions of the abortion debate

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DOWD ON PELOSI — NYT’s Maureen Dowd sat down with Rep. NANCY PELOSI (D-Calif.) for a lengthy piece about life after the speakership — in which Pelosi seems to be having a ball. “My mother is at peak happiness,” ALEXANDRA PELOSI says. “I’ve never seen her like this. It’s like she’s floating through the air. It’s fascinating for my kids because they don’t know this person.” A few other bites that jumped out at us:

Pelosi on the midterms: “She said that she believed the Democrats could have held onto the House in November if top New York pols had realized that the key issue in that state was crime. ‘That is an issue that had to be dealt with early on, not 10 days before the election,’ Pelosi said, adding about KATHY HOCHUL, ‘The governor didn’t realize soon enough where the trouble was.’”

Alexandra Pelosi on the PAUL PELOSI attack: “I think that weighed really heavy on her soul. I think she felt really guilty. I think that really broke her. Over Thanksgiving, she had priests coming, trying to have an exorcism of the house and having prayer services.”

Pelosi on KEVIN McCARTHY’s tortuous path to the speakership: “I’m sad for Kevin that he couldn’t do that in a way that brought a little more dignity to the House of Representatives. It’s strange.”

People attend the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

A typically huge crowd hit the National Mall for the March for Life, and while activists previously paraded directly to the Supreme Court, this time they marched purposefully past the Capitol. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

FIFTY YEARS AFTER ROE It’s been nearly seven months since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, but the new era of abortion politics in America finally arrived in Washington.

While the Dobbs decision has clearly galvanized the abortion-rights movement, things have been a lot more complicated on the anti-abortion side, and yesterday’s March for Life — held two days before Roe’s 50th anniversary — served to highlight the inflection point as activists debate among themselves and with lawmakers about how best to further restrict legal abortions.

A typically huge crowd hit the National Mall for the event, and while activists previously paraded directly to the Supreme Court, this time they marched purposefully past the Capitol. The featured speaker, House Majority Leader STEVE SCALISE, told the marchers that Roe’s reversal “was only the first phase of this battle,” Alice Miranda Ollstein reports. “Now the next phase begins.”

The call to legislate was embraced by the crowd, CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi writes, with advocates focused on new state and federal restrictions. “There are still states that legalize abortion,” one attendee told her. “So, yes, we can celebrate that Roe v. Wade was overturned, but there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done before we can celebrate.”

Overheard by Alice on the street: “One, two, three, four, Roe v. Wade is out the door,” chanted a gaggle of teens wearing matching knit beanies. “Five, six, seven, eight, now it’s time to legislate.”

If only it were that simple. Megan Messerly and Alice write this morning that things have quickly gotten messy at the state level as anti-abortion groups butt heads with Republican lawmakers.

“Advocates fear GOP-controlled legislatures — many convening for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned — will water down their near-total abortion bans that took effect last year and stir up politically contentious debates over laws that have already been vetted,” the pair writes.

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Two key questions have driven the rancor: (1) When can doctors perform an abortion to save the life of a pregnant person? and (2) What kinds of exceptions should be added to laws for survivors of rape and incest? Doctors continue to tell lawmakers that the laws on the books are confusing and leave them vulnerable to prosecution.

“As far as the Republican Party, I don’t think we’ve ever really defined what it means to be pro-life,” said Tennessee House Speaker CAMERON SEXTON, who is pushing to clarify the state’s abortion law and is open to adding rape and incest exceptions. “Unfortunately, we have a wide variety of people who say they’re pro-life. Some believe in no abortions at all. Some believe in exceptions. Some believe when you hear a heartbeat. Some believe other things.”

But anti-abortion groups say any dilution of these laws would be a betrayal, and the fights “threaten to further fragment the anti-abortion movement, which was unified for nearly 50 years over the goal of toppling Roe,” Megan and Alice report. “And they portend further infighting in states where the biggest threat most GOP lawmakers face is a primary from the right.”

Looking ahead to 2024:“Trump struggles with the new politics of abortion as a triumphant March for Life arrives in Washington,” CNN … “Can Mike Pence win the anti-abortion vote?” by Semafor’s Shelby Talcott … “Abortion Pills Will Be the Next Battle in the 2024 Election,” by The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein

Meanwhile … Tomorrow, VP KAMALA HARRIS again takes center stage as the administration’s point person on abortion rights, speaking in Tallahassee, Fla., on Roe’s 50th anniversary.

Harris will emphasize that the administration doesn’t see the issue as one just to be litigated during elections, said aides who previewed her remarks, which will include promises of White House backing for state and local officials who seek to protect and expand abortion access.

President JOE BIDEN has signed two executive orders since Dobbs, and the FDA dropped long-standing restrictions that banned the abortion pill from being sold at drugstores. Aides have telegraphed that other executive actions are on the table, but the White House is also signaling any further administration impact will be limited.

Pressed on abortion this week, press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE told reporters, No executive action will actually deal with that issue — the issue that I just laid out. We need to codify Roe.”

Related read:“Most Abortion Bans Include Exceptions. In Practice, Few Are Granted,” by NYT’s Amy Schoenfeld Walker

Good Saturday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. What would it take to get you to peak happiness? Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

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BIDEN’S SATURDAY — The president has nothing on his public schedule.

HARRIS’ SATURDAY — The VP and second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF will leave LA at 12:55 p.m. Eastern time to head to Tallahassee, Fla.

STEP INSIDE THE WEST WING: What’s really happening in West Wing offices? Find out who’s up, who’s down, and who really has the president’s ear in our West Wing Playbook newsletter, the insider’s guide to the Biden White House and Cabinet. For buzzy nuggets and details that you won’t find anywhere else, subscribe today.


WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20:  U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to mayors from across the country during an event at the East Room of the White House on January 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. President Biden hosted mayors who are attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting at the White House to discuss bipartisan achievements. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Pin

President Joe Biden addresses mayors yesterday at the White House, while they’re in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. | Alex Wong/Getty Images



1. WHO’S AT DEFAULT: Biden and McCarthywent back and forth yesterday on the debt limit: Biden said the men would meet to talk about the issue, after which McCarthy tweeted that he would “discuss a responsible debt ceiling increase to address irresponsible government spending.” Then Jean-Pierre fired back in a statement that “raising the debt ceiling is not a negotiation; it is an obligation … We are going to have a clear debate on two different visions for the country — one that cuts Social Security, and one that protects it — and the President is happy to discuss that with the Speaker.” Biden said he’d address it in his State of the Union, too. More from Adam Cancryn

Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN dismissed one idea floated by Republicans: that Treasury could buy more time by prioritizing debt payments. Yellen said that wouldn’t be feasible, per Axios.

2. OVERSIGHT OVERTURES: The Justice Department told House Judiciary Chair JIM JORDAN (R-Ohio) yesterday that it probably won’t share information about active criminal probes with congressional overseers. “The letter is an early sign of the hurdles Jordan is likely to face, particularly as he tries to investigate the Justice Department and the FBI,” note CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Sara Murray and Paula Reid. The House Judiciary GOP Twitter account, never a shrinking violet, fired back, “Why’s DOJ scared to cooperate with our investigations?”

Meanwhile, House Oversight Chair JAMES COMER (R-Ky.) told PBS NewsHour’s Geoff Bennett that he’s unlikely to subpoena Biden because it’s too hard to do so for a sitting president. Comer also said he believes Biden when the president said he didn’t know about the classified documents recently found: “That should be of more concern to the American people — that he didn’t know he had them.” Related read: “GOP investigations of Biden to test Chairman Comer’s power,”by AP’s Farnoush Amiri

3. THE AGE-OLD QUESTION: Rep. BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.), readying a Senate campaign, has a line ready for those who doubt that a 76-year-old should win the race, reports the S.F. Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli: “Lee will be a transitional candidate.” It’s taking a page out of Biden’s 2020 campaign book, as Democratic voters increasingly question the advanced age of some of their top leaders — including incumbent Sen. DIANNE FEINSTEIN. Lee’s camp is also playing up the fact that she’d be the only Black woman in the Senate. “She’s not a rookie in politics. She’s not a rookie in legislation. She’s an icon,” one Lee source says.

The conversation around age, experience and generational change is also taking place in the Michigan and Indiana Senate races, Semafor’s Dave Weigel reports.

4. THE TALENTED MR. SANTOS: “George Santos appears to admit drag queen past in Wiki post,”by Chris Cadelago: “A Wikipedia page accessed by POLITICO shows a user named Anthony Devolder — a [GEORGE] SANTOS alias — writing that he ‘startted [sp] his “stage” life at age 17 as an gay night club [sp] DRAG QUEEN and with that won sevral [sp] GAY “BEAUTY PAGENTS [sp].”’ … He name drops the director STEVEN SPIELBERG (he misspelled his last name as ‘Spilberg’), and claims to have starred in ‘a few T.V shows and DISNEY Channel shows such as “the suite life of Zack and Cody” and the hit “Hanna[h] Montana.”’”

Another Cadelago find: Chris shares with Playbook a 2015 YouTube video he discovered where a user named George Devolder and @anthonydevolder (both names Santos has used) walks viewers through a homemade natural dog treat recipe. The person, who isn’t seen on video but has a strikingly similar voice to the congressman, explained in the video’s description why he likes the do-it-yourself method: “Hey guys,” he wrote, “this is what I make for my Aurora since I have trust issues with all the lies going around for dog food and treats.” Santos’ office declined to comment.

Related read: “Santos leans on group with white nationalist ties,”by Heidi Przybyla, Julia Marsh and Jessica Piper: “The New York Young Republican Club has feted and supported a roster of relatively extreme figures … But like others in conservative circles, even The New York Young Republican Club is distancing itself from Santos.”

5. WHEN MR. SMITH WENT TO THE HAGUE: “How Jack Smith charged Kosovo’s president and blew up a Trump meeting,”by WaPo’s Devlin Barrett and Rosalind Helderman: “[JACK] SMITH sent two men to prison for sharing sensitive information taken from his office and indicted [Kosovo’s] sitting president — charges that upended a peace summit Trump was organizing at the White House in June 2020. Along the way, Smith weathered frequent questions about the legitimacy of his unusual office and persisted with his inquiry despite outside pressure to speed or slow it. Attorney General MERRICK GARLAND and his advisers hope those experiences will gird Smith for the challenges and attacks [ahead].”

6. LETTER OF THE LAW — “The House’s legal lieutenant in its Trump wars speaks out — about Jan. 6 and more,”by Kyle Cheney: “In a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO, the House’s former top attorney [DOUG LETTER] described his tenure battling a former president who tested the limits of executive power at every turn, resisting efforts at accountability in ways that previous chief executives had not. But he has faith that his work helped to stem future presidential attempts to push constitutional boundaries, lending more power to lawmakers.”

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7. ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY: “One of the Most Influential Ambassadors in Washington Isn’t One,”by NYT’s Michael Crowley: “This is life in the gray zone for Taiwan’s senior diplomat in the United States, BI-KHIM HSIAO, who enjoys powerful insider access but endures a peculiar outsider status. She speaks almost daily with senior Biden administration officials and is wired into leaders of both parties in Congress. … In a play on the ‘wolf warrior’ label for China’s new breed of aggressive diplomats, she called herself a ‘cat warrior.’ ‘Cats can tread on tight ropes and, you know, balance themselves in very nimble and flexible ways,’ she said.”

8. SCOTUS WATCH: In an addendum to the Supreme Court’s report on investigating who disclosed the draft Dobbs ruling to POLITICO, the court said yesterday that all nine justices “actively cooperated” with the marshal’s investigation, Josh Gerstein reports. But they did not have to sign sworn statements like other employees did. The marshal said none of the “credible leads” pointed toward the justices or their spouses.

Related read: “Lawmakers poised to renew push to criminalize Supreme Court leaks,”by Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone and Ryan Tarinelli

9. HOLLYWOODLAND: The surprise documentary about Justice BRETT KAVANAUGH premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last night, providing new information about the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh and the FBI investigation of them in 2018. Per Variety’s Rebecca Rubin, DOUG LIMAN’s film “Justice” interviews DEBORAH RAMIREZ about her accusation and provides new information about a third incident detailed by MAX STIER. 

Related read: “How Doug Liman Directed a Brett Kavanaugh FBI Investigation Doc in Secret,”by The Hollywood Reporter’s Mia Galuppo

CLICKER — “The nation’s cartoonists on the week in politics,” edited by Matt Wuerker — 16 funnies

A political cartoon is pictured in which Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter look through boxes of documents at home.Pin

Stantis – Counterpoint

GREAT WEEKEND READS, curated by Ryan Lizza:

“What the Longest Study on Human Happiness Found Is the Key to a Good Life,”by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz in The Atlantic: “The Harvard Study of Adult Development has established a strong correlation between deep relationships and well-being. The question is, how does a person nurture those deep relationships?”

“The Coyotes Working the U.S. Side of the Border Are Often Highly Vulnerable, Too,”by Julia Love in Bloomberg Businessweek: “When people cross the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to immigrate, they encounter a smuggling network whose operators are often highly vulnerable themselves.”

“The Father of the Abortion Pill,”by NYT’s Pam Belluck in Paris: “The 96-year-old scientist who came up with an idea for an ‘unpregnancy pill’ decades ago has led an eventful life, from his teenage days in the French Resistance to his friendships with famous artists.”

“Jane Swift and Me, 20 Years Later,”Boston Magazine: “‘It’s been two decades since the former governor booted me off her front porch as a young reporter,’ remembers writer Joanna Weiss. ‘What I’ve learned about her—and myself—since then.’”

“The Lawsuit That Could Freeze Speech Against Billionaires,”by Jordan Uhl in The Lever: “A gas mogul’s case against Beto O’Rourke could deter candidates from ever talking about money in politics.”

“How to Keep a Great Magazine Going,”by Stephen Harrigan: “When I started writing for Texas Monthly in 1973, I didn’t expect it to last very long. But it’s still here, five decades later.”

“The Controversial King of Hardcore Climbing,”by Grayson Schaffer in GQ: “After scaling the 14 meanest mountains on earth in record time, Nepali-born Nims Purja emerged as a powerful champion of the country’s Sherpa guides. He’s also become the first celebrity mountaineer of the social media age—and the most controversial figure in the global climbing community.”

“Swamplandia,”by Harper’s’ Andrew Cockburn: “The money behind Ron DeSantis’s populist façade.”

DOWNLOAD THE POLITICO MOBILE APP: Stay up to speed with the newly updated POLITICO mobile app, featuring timely political news, insights and analysis from the best journalists in the business. The sleek and navigable design offers a convenient way to access POLITICO’s scoops and groundbreaking reporting. Don’t miss out on the app you can rely on for the news you need, reimagined. DOWNLOAD FOR iOS– DOWNLOAD FOR ANDROID.


Jerry Moran’s campaign lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in cyber thefts, triggering an FBI investigation, Raw Story’s Dave Levinthal scooped.

Katie Hobbs is going to keep busing and flying migrants out of Arizona.

Jim Lyons, chair of the Massachusetts GOP, spent $1,800 on oppo research against fellow Republicans.

Daniel Swift, a former Navy SEAL, was killed fighting in Ukraine, per Time’s W.J. Hennigan.

John Warner had a building at the University of Virginia renamed in his honor.

IN MEMORIAM — “Longtime Fox News Channel executive Alan Komissaroff dead at 47,”by Fox News’ Brian Flood: “Fox News Senior Vice President of News & Politics Alan Komissaroff died on Friday after suffering a heart attack at his home earlier this month. … Komissaroff was a proud ‘FOX News original,’ having started at the network when FNC launched in 1996.”

OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED at Ian Sams’ birthday party last night at the Moxy hotel lobby bar: CadeAnn Smith, Adrienne Elrod, Kate Berner, Lily Adams, Mike Memoli, Miryam Lipper, Paul Kane, Andrew Bates, Josh Dawsey, Sophia Cai, Emilie Simons, Justin Sink, Matt Viser, Alex Phillips, Zeke Miller, Rebecca Chalif and Michael Kikukawa.

TRANSITIONS — Tim Chapman is jumping ship from Nikki Haley’s team to Mike Pence’s, Alex Isenstadt scooped: Chapman will be senior adviser to Advancing American Freedom after working as executive director of Stand for America. … Mia Ehrenberg is now a press secretary at DHS. She most recently was comms director for Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), and is a Nancy Pelosi alum. … Sara Severens is now comms director for Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.). She previously was comms director for Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and is a Carolyn Maloney alum.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Sean Nelson, legal counsel for global religious freedom at ADF International,and Jennifer Nelson welcomed Felicity Jane Darleen Nelson on Thursday morning. PicAnother pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) … former AG Eric HolderTyler CowenJordan Grossman Will Holley of Firehouse Strategies … CNN’s Sam Feist … Getty Images’ Win McNameeJohn Shinkle … L.A. Times’ Jen HaberkornWill BunchBob Sensenbrenner … ABC’s Chris Donovan … Edelman Smithfield’s Sean Neary … Edelman DXI’s Lyla ShaibiMichael Comer of House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s office … Becca Glover of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office … Kyle O’Connor Michael LemovSteve Rosenthal (7-0) … Campbell Spencer of FORA Partners … Loren DeJonge Schulman … former Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) … former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke Matt Cooper (6-0) … Paloma Chacon of Sen. John Kennedy’s (R-La.) office … Jim Davidson … Edelman’s Lauren Grella Jonathan Grella of LIV Golf Investments … Jack Weiss

THE SHOWS (Full Sunday show listings here):

CNN “Fareed Zakaria GPS”: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy … Polish President Andrzej Duda, Chrystia Freeland, DNI Avril Haines, Yuliia Svyrydenko and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg … Finnish PM Sanna Marin … Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Fox News “Sunday Morning Futures”: House Majority LeaderSteve Scalise … Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) … Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) … Devin Nunes … Newt Gingrich.

CNN “State of the Union”: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) … Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) … Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas). Panel: Karen Finney, David Urban, Alyssa Farah Griffin and Mondaire Jones.

FOX “Fox News Sunday”: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) … Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). Roe v. Wade panel: Penny Nance and Elizabeth Wydra. Panel: Josh Holmes, Francesca Chambers, Raymond Arroyo and Marie Harf.

MSNBC “The Sunday Show”: Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) … Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) … Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) … Lucas Kunce … Laverne Cox.

ABC “This Week”: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) … Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). Black mayors panel: NYC Mayor Eric Adams, LA Mayor Karen Bass and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. Panel: Rachel Scott, Heidi Heitkamp, Sarah Isgur and Alex Burns.

CBS “Face the Nation”: Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) … Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) … Miami Mayor Francis Suarez … New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell … Mesa, Ariz., Mayor John Giles … Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens.

NBC “Meet the Press”: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) … Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). Panel: Peter Baker, Brendan Buck, Kimberly Atkins Stohr and Kristen Welker.

Send Playbookers tips to [email protected] or text us at 202-556-3307. Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike DeBonis, deputy editor Zack Stanton and producers Setota Hailemariam and Bethany Irvine.

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