Effort to Repeal VA Abortion Policy Narrowly Fails in Senate Vote

Tommy Tuberville, United States Senator of Alabama.
Tommy Tuberville, United States Senator of Alabama, delivers remarks as the principal speaker during the commissioning ceremony of USS Mobile. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex Millar)

An effort by opponents in the Senate to undo the Department of Veterans Affairs' decision last year to begin providing abortions fizzled out Wednesday after a resolution to repeal the policy narrowly failed to overcome a key procedural hurdle.

The Senate voted 51-48 against advancing the resolution offered by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., that would have reversed the abortion policy the VA implemented following the Supreme Court's ruling last year that ended nationwide abortion rights.

The vote closes a chapter of Congress' bid to stop the VA from providing abortions. But the policy is still facing challenges, including a pending lawsuit filed by a nurse in Texas alleging the VA rule violates her religious liberties.

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In September, the VA announced that for the first time, it would offer abortions in cases of rape, incest or where the life or health of the mother is at risk from the pregnancy. The change was made in response to the June Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that allowed states to ban abortion.

VA officials have not publicly disclosed the number of abortions provided since then. But in a letter to Congress last month first reported by Bloomberg and obtained by Military.com on Wednesday, the department said it provided 34 abortions through February.

Of the 34, 26 were done to protect the health of the mother, according to the letter. One was provided to protect the life of the mother, seven were given because the pregnancy resulted from a rape and none were because of incest. The letter does not specify what facilities the abortions were conducted in, nor whether they were medication or surgical abortions.

Tuberville and other Republicans argue the VA policy violates a 1992 law that directed the VA to provide reproductive health care except for "infertility services, abortions or pregnancy care," unless that care is needed because of a service-connected condition.

"This administration doesn't get to change the law just because they feel like it," Tuberville said at a news conference Wednesday ahead of the vote. "It's a slap in the face to people who don't want to pay for abortions."

Supporters of the VA policy counter that it is allowed under a 1996 law that requires the department to give "needed" medical care to veterans.

Tuberville challenged the VA policy under what's known as the Congressional Review Act, or CRA, which allows Congress to overturn actions the executive branch takes through the federal rulemaking process.

Under the CRA, only a simple majority was needed to advance the resolution, rather than the 60 votes needed for most legislation in the upper chamber.

That vote threshold raised the prospect that the Senate could advance Tuberville's resolution even though Democrats hold a slim majority in the chamber. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., supported the resolution, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been absent, meaning Democrats needed at least one Republican to side with them to block the resolution.

Ultimately, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted against the resolution. Both senators said they believe the VA policy is consistent with what's known as the Hyde Amendment, a rider included in annual spending bills that bars federal funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at risk.

"I think that the rule itself meets the Hyde requirements, which are pretty much my guidelines there, and I think that the VA has the authority to issue such a rule," Murkowski told Military.com.

The White House also threatened to veto the resolution if it reached President Joe Biden's desk, meaning the measure would have needed to muster at least two-thirds support to become law.

"The legislation would not only prevent veterans and CHAMPVA beneficiaries from receiving essential health care when they need it most -- it undermines patient safety and invites political interference into deeply personal decisions made by pregnant veterans and CHAMPVA beneficiaries in consultation with their health-care providers, threatening their health and lives," the White House said in a statement Wednesday, using the acronym for Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The vote on Tuberville's VA resolution comes as he has been at the center of a separate but similar controversy over the Pentagon's abortion policy.

Tuberville has been blocking quick confirmation for about 160 general and flag officer nominees over his opposition to the Defense Department's recently announced travel and leave policies for troops seeking abortions.

The senator has suggested he may drop his objection to the nominees if he is granted a vote on the Pentagon policy. Unlike the VA policy, the Pentagon one is not subject to the CRA because the department used a different mechanism to implement it.

Tuberville said Wednesday there has been no progress on the impasse over the nominees, suggesting conversations on the topic were on the "backburner" while the Senate considered his VA resolution.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA Sets Rules for Employees to Opt Out of Providing Abortions over Religious Objections

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