House leaders stick with Rep. Cuellar despite abortion stand

Paul J. Weber
Associated Press

San Antonio – Just a day after Democrats forcefully recommitted to protecting abortion rights, a U.S. House leader was set to swoop in to Texas to rally alongside Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress.

The 17-year incumbent is in his toughest reelection campaign, facing a May 24 primary runoff against progressive Jessica Cisneros. The vote comes at an awkward time for Cuellar, who finds himself at sharp odds with his party at a highly visible moment when Democrats are mostly united in outrage over the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that legalized abortion.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) questions U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he testifies before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 27, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Cisneros, an immigration lawyer who supports abortion rights, finished roughly 1,000 votes behind Cuellar in March, when neither candidate met the majority threshold to win outright.

Cuellar’s event Wednesday in San Antonio with the third-ranking Democratic leader in the House, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, now threatens to undercut the party’s election-year promises to defend the constitutional right to an abortion, which appears on the brink of ending after nearly a half-century. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has also previously affirmed her support for Cuellar.

Cisneros called on House leaders to drop their backing of Cuellar in the heavily Hispanic district that runs to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The stakes are high. They’re absolutely high,” Cineros said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. “South Texans deserve a champion for their rights and freedom.”

Cuellar reiterated his opposition to abortion in a statement Tuesday but said the leaked draft went too far and would divide the country.

“As a Catholic, I do not support abortion, however, we cannot have an outright ban,” Cuellar wrote. “There must be exceptions in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.”

Cuellar’s campaign had announced the rally with Clyburn before Politico published the leaked draft late Monday. It is one of the congressman’s biggest campaign events since FBI agents searched his home in January. Cuellar has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyer said last month that federal authorities told them Cuellar is not the target of an investigation.

The draft Supreme Court opinion was written in February, and the language could change before the court issues its final ruling. As written, it would give states the power to decide the legality of abortion. In Texas, that would mean an outright ban that would take effect almost immediately.

Cuellar was the only House Democrat last year to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which sought to bolster access to abortion. It was just one more example of how Cuellar’s centrist record has sometimes put him more aligned with Republicans, including with his support for gun rights and his criticism of President Joe Biden’s handling of the border.

Back in March, despite months of outrage by Democrats over Texas’ restrictive new ban on abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy, abortion had largely receded from the spotlight in the state heading into the first round of voting between Cuellar and Cisneros.

Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, thinks the leaked Supreme Court decision could change that dynamic. She described the Cisneros race as critical.

“We think this is going to be very motivating,” she said. “People are very angry.”