By Trevor Hunnicutt, Nandita Bose and Andrea Shalal
MADRID/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday proposed that U.S. senators remove a legislative roadblock to restoring abortion rights that were taken away by the Supreme Court last week, a suggestion that was shot down by aides to key Democratic lawmakers.
Biden's proposal to temporarily lift the Senate "filibuster" was rejected by aides to Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.
Biden told a news conference at a NATO conference in Madrid that "we have to" pass laws making abortion a right in all 50 U.S. states.
"If the filibuster gets in the way - it's like voting rights - it should be we provide an exception for this," said Biden, a Democrat. Without sufficient votes in Congress to suspend the legislative filibuster, Biden's statement is more of a gesture than a policy plan.
A spokesman for Manchin and an aide to Sinema, who both have opposed suspending the filibuster in the past, told Reuters on Thursday that their respective positions had not changed.
Biden would very likely need their votes for Congress to sidestep the filibuster and pass a law to protect the federal right to abortion.
White House officials did not immediately offer any more details on what the president's strategy would be, or who in the administration would make it a reality.
Biden's new stance, coupled with the announcement of a White House meeting on Friday with state governors on abortion rights, came after sharp criticism from his own party over his response to the Supreme Court ruling overturning U.S. women's right to obtain abortions.
"There has been pressure building up to act and show that we are doing more," said an administration source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The president has always believed something must be done."
The hot-button issue is seen as a potent political force ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections, where Democrats are seeking to retain control of the House of Representatives and Senate. Protecting abortion rights is a top issue for Democratic women, Reuters polling shows https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ELECTION/POLLING/byprjqmdjpe/democrat.
In recent days, both White House aides and congressional leaders have said they lacked the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster to pass most legislation, including a broad abortion rights bill.
As recently as May, all 50 Republicans and Manchin voted against advancing legislation making abortion legal throughout the United States.
In January, a voting rights bill failed in the Senate eight days after Biden tried to propel it to passage by supporting a filibuster carve-out.
Biden had previously endorsed bypassing the filibuster in only limited cases, such as for voting rights and avoiding a debt default, but not for abortion rights.
On Thursday, he said the filibuster carve-out should apply not just to abortion but to other rights based on privacy, a likely reference to contraception and gay rights.
Biden has grown more open to bypassing the filibuster in recent months to protect fundamental rights, according to people familiar with the matter, but aides have debated the merits of making any statement on the issue until after the midterms, when Democrats could theoretically gain seats in the Senate.
The White House plans a range of executive actions in the coming days on abortion rights, and has also promised to protect women who cross state lines for abortions and support for medical abortion.
Media reports in recent days, including from Reuters, that the White House was unlikely to take up Democrats' bolder suggestions to protect abortion rights angered some in the president's own party.
Biden and administration officials have been concerned that more radical moves would be politically polarizing, undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court or lack strong legal footing, sources inside and outside the White House said.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez juxtaposed a Reuters report about Biden's unwillingness to take some steps on abortion with a New York Times report on Democrats' doubts on whether he will seek re-election in 2024, suggesting there was some connection.
"Now we're talking," Ocasio-Cortez said after Biden's remarks on the filibuster. "Time for people to see a real, forceful push for it. Use the bully pulpit. We need more."
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)