WASHINGTON – It reads like a who's who of the next generation of Republican Party leaders: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rob Portman.
But what is bringing all these marquee political names together is not the Iowa State Fair or a tea party rally on the National Mall. Rather, they are all talking discreetly about how to advance a bill in the Senate to ban abortion starting at 20 weeks after fertilization.
A similar ban passed the House last month, and Senate Democrats quickly pronounced it doomed to fail in their chamber. It is almost certain to be defeated there, and even if it were not, President Barack Obama would veto it. But backers of the ban are eager to bring to the floor of the Senate the same impassioned debate over abortion that has been taking place in state legislatures around the country.
Plans under discussion among the staff members of a handful of Republican senators and anti-abortion groups would involve bringing the measure up for a vote, probably as part of debate over a spending measure, sometime after Congress returns from its August recess. Because of the Senate's porous rules for introducing amendments, people on both sides of the issue say they believe a vote is more than likely if the legislation comes together.
"I think there's significant support across the country for the idea that after 20 weeks, abortion should be significantly limited," said Rubio, who has taken a leading role in trying to generate support for the bill.
Republicans are hardly unanimous about the wisdom of entangling themselves in a national battle over abortion rights; many believe that the party should remain focused on addressing economic issues and fighting Obama's health care overhaul.
"I'm focused on energy, the economy and what's happening with the president's health care law," said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Republican leadership. Asked whether he thought abortion was a distraction for his party, he stuck to a popular Republican refrain: "I'm completely focused on jobs, the economy, the health care law."
Democrats, meanwhile, are wary of the damage that a "no" vote on second-trimester abortion restrictions could inflict on some of their more vulnerable senators up for re-election in 2014, particularly in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, where legislatures have recently imposed strict limits. On Friday, the governor of North Carolina said he would sign into law new regulations on abortion clinics.
"Look, I've taken a lot of tough votes," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., who added that she doubted she could support a ban at 20 weeks. "That's what I'm here for, to take votes. And if we have to take it, we take it."
The success of new limits on when, how and where abortions can be performed has helped invigorate the Republican base like few other issues this year. Because of such intensity, anti-abortion groups say they have found considerable interest among the newer generation of Republican senators, especially those seeking to build up – or in some cases repair – their standing with conservative voters.
Some see even broader appeal. Although the issue of reproductive rights has been problematic for Republicans – who have been embarrassed by such comments as those of Todd Akin, the Indiana Senate candidate who said that women's bodies blocked pregnancy in cases of rape – those supporting 20-week bans say the dynamics of this debate are less alienating to swing voters than fights over contraception.
Some conservatives see this as the only winning social issue they have left in their political arsenal. Unlike same-sex marriage, which has steadily gained support, recent polls have shown that the public believes that abortions later in pregnancy should be restricted. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that 56 percent of Americans said they would prefer to impose limits on abortions after 20 weeks rather than the 24-week standard established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
Anti-abortion activists said that after the recently approved House measure and success in such states as Texas, which approved a 20-week ban this month, they saw an opportunity they could not pass up.
"We really thought it was a moment to be very ambitious," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the groups pushing for the Senate to take up the 20-week ban.
Abortion rights groups say the real goal of these laws, all of which challenge Supreme Court precedent, is to get another case before the court in the hopes that the justices will further restrict abortion rights.
"These bills are not happenstance," said Donna Crane, policy director of Naral Pro-Choice America. "These bills are a calculated, cold strategy."
Cruz of Texas is trying to build a larger following among Republicans beyond his home state. He visited Iowa last weekend to meet with evangelical pastors and other members of the state's conservative establishment. Joining him was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has also expressed interest in signing onto a 20-week bill, according to Dannenfelser and a spokeswoman for the senator.
Portman of Ohio, who was on Mitt Romney's short list to become the Republican vice-presidential nominee last year and who has told his colleagues that he would like to be deeply involved in the 20-week legislation, is trying to rebuild conservative support that he lost back home in March after he spoke out in favor of same-sex marriage.
Drafting a bill, however, will require conservatives to resolve a fundamental disagreement: how to find constitutional justification for a nationwide ban despite their reservations about giving the government broad regulatory powers.
Then there is the issue of how new abortion regulations might be perceived among women. So far, none of the four Republican women in the Senate has stepped forward to get involved.
Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who has a solidly anti-abortion voting record, said, "I'm focused on a lot of other issues now."