Will Rubio take on abortion?
TAMPA - Following a bitter fight over immigration reform that damaged him with his conservative base, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may be about to jump into another hot issue, but one that could help him mend conservative fences - a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks gestation.
In the last few days, news reports, mostly in conservative publications, have quoted unnamed Rubio associates saying he has agreed to sponsor such a bill, or that he's been asked to do so and is considering it. The Washington Post reported, based on comments from an unnamed Rubio adviser, that Rubio hasn't made a decision on the issue, but an announcement is likely next week after senators return from a holiday break.
Rubio himself won't confirm or deny any of the reports.
"We don't have anything to announce" was the only reply from his Senate office spokesman Alex Conant in response to questions from the Tribune.
But if Rubio does jump into the abortion debate, some Republicans think it could help repair his image with the conservative wing of the party, where many early and strong supporters of Rubio have turned against him over what they call his betrayal on immigration reform.
A 20-week abortion ban has become a powerful symbolic issue in the wake of the Texas Legislature's consideration of a similar ban, which was disrupted - but probably not stopped - by a citizens protest at the Austin statehouse and filibuster by Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis.
The incident made Davis a hero to pro-choice forces and Democrats, and vaulted her into contention for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican, said the issue could help Rubio and Republicans two ways - it would help him with his own conservative image, and also help other Republicans running for office in 2014.
"Some conservatives will never forget, nor forgive Rubio for his support of the immigration bill," Paulson said, but for others, it will salve their disappointment.
State Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, a pillar of the Florida religious right who was an early backer of Rubio and supported his immigration proposal, agreed that the move "will reassure many people that his core convictions are sound."
"I don't know that it fixes everything, but at least it demonstrates that he still has sound, core values, and is willing to grasp a difficult issue," Baxley said.
The two issues aren't interchangeable, however.
"The tea party doesn't really focus on social issues, but there are people in the movement who are concerned about those issues," said Sharon Calvert, founder of the Tampa Tea Party. "It might help with some, but not help him with others."
The Florida Democratic Party, meanwhile, leaped on the news last week, accusing Rubio of "a radical attack on women's health choices."
"Marco Rubio was elected by the extreme right, and there's no doubt that Rubio is being forced to cater to that minority opinion," said Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp. "You'd have to talk to him to find out his motives, but this is the kind of proposal that shows contempt for women's rights."
Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based pro-choice research foundation on reproductive issues, said regardless of the motives, the move is purely symbolic because the ban can't become law.
The potential for the bill even to be considered in the Senate, with its Democratic majority, "is next to nil, and President Obama has already said he will veto any such bill that makes it to his desk," she said. "In the states, it's a different story."
Nash said 11 states have passed legislation since 2010 with bans on abortions after 20 weeks, although the bills in several states, such as the one in Texas, focused heavily on restrictions on clinics intended to reduce access to any abortions.
Legal challenges to the new laws are underway in three of those states, she said.
Those challenges may succeed, Nash said, because a ban at 20 weeks conflicts with current law under the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions. These decisions allow prohibition of or limits on abortions after fetal viability, usually considered by doctors to be 24-26 weeks, and require exceptions to protect the life and health of the mother.
Paulson said the abortion and immigration bills are an example of the current "era of symbolic politics - being on the right side of an issue and not necessarily the winning side" because neither is likely to make it into law.
Religious conservatives will be pleased by Rubio's move regardless of its chances, Baxley said.
"Whether he can get it out of the Senate or not, it's important to put the sanctity of life before the people."