Nothing can stir political controversy like a good old fashioned battle over abortion. Unless, that is, you’re the committee assigned jurisdiction to hold hearings on the matter. Today, Senate leadership tapped freshman Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) to become an ex-officio member of the Rules Committee so they could approve SB 210 with a quorum present. (Please don’t call him a “Hawk”. That was a term used in Glenn Richardson’s House, when the Senate quietly disapproved of the practice. And besides, a hawk is a bird of prey, and today’s hearing was about being pro-life.)
The fact that Rules was even hearing SB 210 is a bit of a surprise. After all, 210 is clearly a tort bill, allowing suits for wrongful death depending on circumstances surrounding an abortion. Yet only one permanent member of the Rules Committee is an attorney (Bill Hamrick, not present).
In the recent unpleasantness that was the battle over Senate control, Casey Cagle was left with the sole authority to direct legislation to committee of jurisdiction, and little else. A bit low in his political capital these days, Cagle directed SB 210 and SB 209 to the Rules Committee with solid pro-life Chairman Don Balfour, who also couldn’t hurt by brushing up his social conservative bonafides. SB 210 sailed through without too much difficulty after some testimony.
SB 209, however, became a pure bait and switch on behalf of its sponsor, Barry Loudermilk. Many states this year are attempting to pass pro-life legislation to prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, when a baby is estimated to have the ability to feel pain. Thus, those in attendance for the hearing were prepared to give testimony for or against the “fetal pain” bill. Yet at the beginning of the session, Loudermilk instead passed out a substitute bill, taking virtually all in the room off guard.
The new SB 209 restricts abortions in Georgia to hospitals only, effectively closing all Georgia abortion clinics. It also restricts any insurance plan created by the pending Georgia Insurance Exchange from covering abortion except in the case of physical health of the mother.
Given that it is essentially a new bill rather than what was expected, Balfour held over the hearing until 10am Friday to give everyone a chance to absorb the changes prior to a vote.
Normally, bills that pass Rules head straight to the floor for a full Senate vote. However, because Rules is the Committee of Jurisdiction, these bills must survive another Committee vote (assuming SB 209 passes tomorrow) before moving to the floor. The second vote would be to apply the rule under which they will be voted on, and is essentially approval for the full Senate to vote.
And, if you notice a sense of urgency surrounding this somewhat unconventional approach to advancing legislation, consider this. Crossover day – the day a bill must pass the House or Senate to be considered by the other body this year – is scheduled for Wednesday. Thus, informally, anything that will be considered by Rules for a floor vote must be approved by the committee of jurisdiction by tomorrow. This will allow Senators to review over the weekend – or not – before the Rules Committee holds its final scheduled meeting before crossover day Monday afternoon.
In Summary, you’ve have this: The Georgia Senate has honored Widespread Panic and Drivin’ & Cryin. In between, they argued for weeks over legalizing Sunday Sales of alcohol without ever taking a vote. Now, with literally days left, they’re going to try to advance the biggest change in Georgia’s pro-life laws in over a decade. And their starting move is a bait and switch.
It’s a serious topic. Regardless where you stand on this issue, Georgia deserves a Senate that will treat it seriously. Even normal Balfour critics have praised his actions today. Let’s hope a few more members of his committee are in their seats tomorrow at 10am so that the next freshman walking slowly down the hall doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting again.