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Republicans are learning their political limits on antiabortion measures

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Good morning, everyone. Send tips for beating the Mondays to rachel.roubein@washpost.com. Today’s Health 202 was adapted from reporting from Caroline Kitchener, Katie Shepherd, Marianna Sotomayor and me.

Today’s edition: President Biden will tap biomedical scientist Renee Wegrzyn to lead the administration’s new agency to advance biomedical research. Abortion is becoming a focal point of Democratic advertising as the midterms loom. But first…

Some Republicans – in Congress and some states – are backing away from the strictest abortion bans

On Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, some Republican lawmakers are backing off aggressive efforts to advance certain hard-line antiabortion measures.

In Congress, efforts to pursue a strict nationwide abortion ban have quietly fizzled. In the spring, there was momentum behind pressing for a law banning abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected at roughly six weeks, known as a “heartbeat” bill. Now, some lawmakers are instead setting their sights on a 15-week ban, while others say the decision is up to each state, Caroline, Katie, Marianna and your Health 202 host report.

Meanwhile, efforts to pass near-total abortion bans in two states evolved into GOP infighting. Lawmakers in South Carolina disagreed over whether to include exceptions for rape and incest, a debate that’s put the GOP under an uncomfortable spotlight in a post-Roe America. In West Virginia, there was an intraparty battle over whether to remove criminal penalties for doctors.

This comes as Republicans are reckoning with a growing backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. The issue has upended the midterm elections, which are just two months away, and buoyed Democrats’ hopes of stemming a massive red wave.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) is expected to introduce a 15-week ban this fall, a proposal that some antiabortion advocates have denounced as inadequate since it allows the majority of abortions to continue. (Spokespeople for Graham didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But that’s a marked shift from a quick introduction of a “heartbeat” ban in the Senate, which some Republican lawmakers had hoped to do if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) had been planning behind the scenes to introduce the legislation, lending the star power of a woman in GOP leadership.

  • Yet, there isn’t a timeline for Ernst or another lawmaker to introduce it even though it’s drafted, according to several antiabortion advocates close to the situation. (Ernst didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)
  • Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), founder and chair of the Senate Pro-Life Caucus, said he hasn’t had conversations with lawmakers about introducing such legislation since the Supreme Court’s decision, pointing instead to discussions around a 15- or 20-week ban.

Either bill would be unlikely to pass in the Senate, even if the GOP retakes the chamber. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wouldn’t kill the filibuster to pass abortion legislation, meaning it would require 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a procedural hurdle.

In the House… Republicans likely won’t quickly bring up a “heartbeat” bill if they win back the chamber.

One reason: The politics of abortion. Even before a special election in New York saw the Democratic candidate win in part by pinning GOP extremism to abortion, Republican aides working for members representing swing districts noted that it was not good politically for them to be discussing how far a GOP majority would go on the issue, Marianna reports.

House GOP leaders have begun discussing what legislation they could vote on upon their return to Washington next year.

A Republican aide familiar with discussions says three bills are on their radar for immediate consideration, including Rep. Ann Wagner‘s (R-Mo.) bill that would require doctors save the life of an aborted fetus born alive and a bill by Rep. Chris Smith (RN.J.) that would permanently bar federal funds from being used for abortions, per Marianna. Another is redrafting a bill to reduce the window a pregnancy can be terminated from 20 weeks to 15 weeks.

Inside state legislatures

Feuds over how far to restrict abortions are playing out in several special legislative sessions.

In South Carolina, Republicans failed to find consensus on a ban from fertilization without exceptions for victims of rape or incest. Over the course of two days, a small group of Republicans tried to convince their colleagues to soften the bill’s language.

The end result: Republicans pushing for the near-total ban abandoned the proposal. Instead, the legislature passed an amended version of a “heartbeat” ban that’s already on the books but has been blocked by the courts.

In West Virginia, a similar dynamic played out earlier this summer. Republican lawmakers introduced a near-total ban without exceptions for rape or incest when they convened in July. Two lawmakers pushed for an amendment that would have removed criminal penalties for doctors, while others introduced an amendment to broaden the bill’s exceptions.

But they disbanded for the month of August amid gridlock over the bill. Lawmakers are returning to the state Capitol this week and will resume debate over antiabortion legislation.

White House prescriptions

Biden to name director of new agency ARPA-H

New this am: President Biden announced his intention to adjunct biomedical scientist Renee Wegrzyn as the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H)a new agency aimed at spurring medical innovation.

This comes as Biden will deliver remarks outlining his cancer moonshot initiative at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s famous speech vowing to land a man on the moon.

The details: Wegrzyn previously worked for the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, both of which ARPA-H was modeled after. She will be tasked with shaping the agency’s nascent portfolio and overseeing its budget.

Also: Biden will sign an executive order establishing the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative to support cutting-edge medical research and manufacturing in the United States. The initiative is aimed at driving research and development across federal agencies, streamlining regulation and prioritizing investments in biosafety research.

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy:

As Democrats rally around abortion, Republicans admit the issue will play a role in midterms

Abortion has become a Mainstay of Democratic Advertising in the run-up to the midterm elections, with the word mentioned in 1 in 3 ads airing in early September, according to AdImpact.

The messaging trend by Democrats coincides with a shift among Republicans. For months, the GOP argued publicly that the Supreme Court’s decision overturning abortion rights would not impact the midterms. But Republicans have now begun to admit that it has helped excite Democratic voters and increase voter registration in some states, our colleagues Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Isaac Arnsdorf and Jeff Stein report.

Republican leaders have told GOP candidates to calibrate their advertising for their own voters, with a focus on issues like crime and parental rights in education. Candidates are also looking to use Trump’s themes about outsourcing jobs and fracking without the loaded “America First” or “Make America Great Again” labels.

And while Republicans remain favored to win the House, the Senate is a coin flip for control. There’s a broad expectation that Democratic polling leads in states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will narrow over the coming months and the outside chance that other states like North Carolina or Colorado will become more pivotal.

There are also signs that more Democrats may be motivated to vote this November. HAS Pew Research Center poll found the share of voters who call abortion “very important” to their vote rose from 43 percent in March to 56 percent in August, with Democrats showing far more interest in the subject.

Donald Schneider, who served as chief economist to Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, said for months the GOP has believed inflation “was our big arrow in the quiver.” But now, “it’s a private concern among Republicans: ‘Are we going to lose this thing, or are we okay?’ ”

New York declares state of emergency over polio outbreak

Govt. Kathy Hochul (D) declared a state disaster emergency Friday over New York’s polio outbreak in a bid to ramp up vaccination efforts and better equip local health officials to confront the life-threatening virus.

The state has only confirmed one case of polio so far — an unvaccinated man from Rockland County was diagnosed with the paralyzing disease inJuly. But the virus has turned up in wastewater samples collected from other neighboring counties, as well as New York City, signaling that the outbreak has continued to spread.

The polio vaccination rates in most counties where positive samples have been collected are lower than the statewide average. By declaring the emergency order, officials hope to boost statewide vaccination rates from roughly 79 percent to above 90 percent.

  • The order expands the network of people who can administer the vaccine to include emergency service workers, midwives and pharmacists.
  • It also requires health-care providers to send polio immunization data to the state’s department of health, so that officials can focus on areas where vaccines are needed most.

Welcome to your official end of August recess. The House and Senate are both in this week.

We tap today: Biden will deliver remarks outlining his cancer moonshot.

Wednesday: Tea Senate HELP Committee will convene top Biden officials to examine the administration’s response to monkeypox; et un Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on immigrants in the health-care workforce.

Thursday: A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will hold a hearing on recovery from the covid-19 pandemic; has House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee will discuss aging therapies; tea House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will examine female veterans’ access to medical and reproductive health care; tea House Ways and Means Committee will agree on preparing America’s health-care infrastructure for the climate crisis.

While Inflation Takes a Toll on Seniors, Billions of Dollars in Benefits Go Unused (Judith Graham l Kaiser Health News)

Push to double up on Covid booster and flu shot may have a downside, caution experts (By Helen Branswell | Stat)

Calls to suicide prevention lifeline rose 45% after changeover to 988 number (By Jacqueline Howard | CNN)

Thanks for reading! See y’all tomorrow.

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