By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham proposed new national restrictions on abortion on Tuesday, saying he wanted to help define Republicans on an issue seen as a potential albatross for his party in the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
With control of the Senate up for grabs, and some jittery Republican candidates softening their positions on abortion, Graham announced legislation that would ban the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy nationwide.
The bill, which will go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Congress, appeared to strike at a middle ground for Republicans, whose positions run the gamut from strict bans to support for narrow access to abortion services.
But the move carries political risks. Democrats have been eager to cast Republicans as extreme on the abortion issue, since the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and about a dozen states began enforcing abortion bans.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Sept. 7-12 showed that 63% of respondents said they were less likely to back candidates who support laws that ban or severely restrict abortion.
After Roe's overturn, many Republicans, including Graham, said abortion policy should be left to the states.
On Tuesday, however, Graham said he was introducing his bill as a counter to a measure Democrats pushed unsuccessfully this year in a bid to codify national abortion rights.
"After they introduced a bill to define who they are, I thought it'd be nice to introduce a bill to define who we are," Graham, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, said at a news conference where he has flanked by 10 anti-abortion leaders, all of them women.
"If we take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we'll have a vote on our bill," Graham added.
Graham's initiative appeared to run afoul of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who said he would leave individual Republican candidates to determine their positions on the abortion issue.
"I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level," McConnell told reporters, when asked if he would bring Graham's bill to the floor for a vote if Republicans won the Senate majority in November.
The new legislation is stricter than measures Graham introduced in previous years that aimed to ban abortions after 20 weeks. The current bill allows exceptions in cases involving rape, incest or risks to the mother's life and health.
The bill quickly came under fire from Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who played on Graham's allegiance to Trump by branding it a "MAGA" measure, using the acronym for Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again."
"For the hard right, this has never been about states’ rights," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "No, for MAGA Republicans, this has always been about making abortion illegal everywhere."
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre called Graham's bill "wildly out of step with what Americans believe."
A majority of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Abortion rights advocates have scored political victories in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision. Democrat Pat Ryan won a House special election in New York last month after making abortion his top campaign issue, and voters in conservative Kansas overwhelmingly rejected an effort to remove abortion protections from the state's constitution.
Democrats, who have been weighed down by inflation and President Joe Biden's anemic job approval numbers, are hoping voter energy around the abortion issue will allow the party to capitalize on Republican weaknesses in some House of Representatives and Senate races.
Republicans are favored to take control of the House in November but could have a harder time regaining the Senate majority, as Trump-endorsed candidates struggle in key swing states including Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Some Republican candidates, including Senate hopeful Blake Masters in Arizona, have gone so far as to change their campaign websites to eliminate hard-line rhetoric on abortion, according to U.S. media reports.
Republican Senator Kevin Cramer told reporters on Tuesday that the introduction of a federal ban bill "fires up our base at a time when their (Democrats') base is very fired up."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh and Richard Cowan Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Aurora Ellis and Jonathan Oatis)