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Politics chat: The battle over abortion; calls for Senator Feinstein to step down

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Abortion-rights supporters rallied yesterday across the country and here in Washington in front of the Supreme Court.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are we going to back down?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are we going to be quiet?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are we going to back down ever?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There we go.

RASCOE: The clock is ticking down on a temporary stay of a lower court ruling that would restrict access to the abortion drug mifepristone. The stay was issued by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito at the request of the Justice Department. It only lasts through this Wednesday. Joining me to discuss this and other political stories this week is NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi. Good to be with you.

RASCOE: OK, so this stay is buying time, but for what exactly?

KHALID: Well, I should be clear, it's a purely administrative move. So, you know, folks shouldn't interpret it as a sign of how the Supreme Court might actually decide this case. A bit of backstory, I think, is worthwhile to just explain the context here. So earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas suspended the FDA's approval of the drug. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in. It preserved some access, but also put new limitations. And then on Friday, the Justice Department issued a formal request to block the limits. And the administration's argument here is that what the court did is not just unprecedented, but it could unleash regulatory chaos. It pointed out that the drug is not just for abortion, but it's also used in many cases to treat miscarriages. This stay that the Supreme Court issued really gives the other side now a chance to respond to the government's appeal.

RASCOE: So that's the legal fallout. But there seems to be some political fallout, too, of course, so - over this uncertainty around abortion.

KHALID: That's right. I mean, if you look at public opinion, it is becoming, I think, increasingly clear that the courts are not in sync with where people are on this issue. You know, the Pew Research Center has polling out that shows by more than a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say medication abortion ought to be legal in their state. And I will say, you know, what, to me, was very interesting is when the court decision out of Texas came down, when that judge's decision came down, you did not see a slew of Republicans, specifically those running for president in 2024, you know, coming in to champion this decision. But you did immediately see Democrats condemning it. They feel they have the upper hand politically. I will sort of assume that they are likely to run on this issue, as we saw them do in the midterms. And really, the message we're hearing from Democrats is that Republicans are preparing for a national ban on abortion.

RASCOE: So what's the president been saying about all of this?

KHALID: Well, Biden himself, you know, I will say broadly has not been terribly vocal on abortion, but he has strongly criticized this decision. It is actually the vice president, Kamala Harris, though, who's taken the lead within this administration on promoting reproductive rights. And this is, I think, in many ways a natural issue for her in a way that perhaps it is not for President Biden. Just yesterday, she spoke to hundreds of people who had been marching through downtown LA to voice their support for abortion rights. She warned of so-called extremist leaders around the country and said that this is a really critical point in our nation's history that is going to require people to stand up and fight.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: When you attack the rights of women in America, you are attacking America.

KHALID: You know, she is going to keep using the power of the bully pulpit on abortion. And I think this is interesting because there have been questions about the stature of her role on this ticket leading up to the reelection bid. But this is an issue that she's really taken a lead on. She's going to be traveling to Reno, Nev. on Tuesday to discuss the issue. And it's really become central to her job.

RASCOE: The Senate returns to Washington this week, but at least one Democratic lawmaker will not be here due to ongoing health problems - Dianne Feinstein of California. She's already planning to retire in 2024, but some of her colleagues are saying she needs to step down now. Here's what Congressman Ro Khanna told NPR just last week.

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RO KHANNA: I have not spoken to Senator Feinstein for four years. She doesn't show up to any of the California lunches. She doesn't engage. I mean, it's sort of an open secret in Washington. All I said is what people know privately - that California has basically had an absentee senator.

RASCOE: Asma, what do you make of this?

KHALID: I will say it really comes down to the Judiciary Committee. She has a role on that committee. Democrats cannot get any of Biden's picks through and confirmed without her vote. She has offered to temporarily step down from that committee. But it's not clear that, you know, Republicans are going to agree with that move. And that does put the administration in a tight spot. Judges is something they can do through the Senate. They don't need Republican control in the House to do that.

RASCOE: That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thanks so much for joining us.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.