PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Senate’s Democratic leaders are defending their thwarting of Republican efforts to defeat an abortion rights bill by transferring it to another committee at the last minute.
Senate leaders have been struggling over the measure, the Reproductive Privacy Act, ever since it passed the House in March. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the House bill on a 5-4 vote last month, leading to weeks of private negotiations to swing the fifth vote, Sen. Stephen Archambault.
That effort appeared on the brink of success Tuesday after Archambault said he would back a revised version of the bill — until the chamber’s two Republican leaders, Dennis Algiere and Elaine Morgan, revealed plans to use their so-called “ex officio” power to join the committee for the day and vote it down.
In response, Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata announced at the start of the hearing she was invoking Senate Rule 6.14, which allows committee leaders to transfer bills unilaterally, and shipped it over to the Health and Human Services Committee, which is expected to pass the measure Thursday.
The sudden change of plans outraged Republicans and anti-abortion activists. In a news release Wednsday, GOP Chair Sue Cienki called Lynch Prata’s decision “disgraceful,” arguing, “Because the Democratic Senate leadership didn’t have the votes, they broke the rules.”
Specifically, Cienki said Rule 6.14 allows bills to be transferred only on the floor of the Senate — not by a committee chair during a hearing, as happened Tuesday. Therefore, she said, Morgan should have been recognized to make a motion for a debate and vote on the abortion bill.
“This abortion bill is terrible, and breaking the rules to get it passed is reprehensible,” she continued. “This is just another example of how the so-called pro-life Democratic leadership of the General Assembly will do whatever it takes to get an abortion bill passed. These politicians care more about power for themselves than any issue, even the lives of the unborn.”
“If this bill had been allowed to go to vote in committee yesterday, it would have died,” she added. “Instead by breaking the rules, this abortion bill lives on and if it becomes law, unborn children will die.”
In a lengthy rebuttal Wednesday, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare called Cienki’s allegations “bogus.”
“Senator Morgan did not ask to be recognized in committee,” he said. “She never made a motion. She never even took her seat. She objected to the transfer of the legislation, but that is not an objectionable action in committee. A transfer is an action of the chairwoman, not a motion.”
Pare went on to say that Morgan could have objected later in the evening on the Senate floor, when Senate President Dominick Ruggerio formalized the transfer of the bill to the health committee, but she did not. He also said bill transfers between committees have happened 19 times this year and last year, while Morgan has only voted ex officio once over the same period.
“Should the bill pass committee on Thursday, it will come to the floor next week and all senators will have the opportunity to make their voices heard on behalf of their constituents,” he said. “It is disingenuous of Senator Morgan to suggest that democracy would be better served by the defeat of the bill in committee without a vote by the full Senate.”
On the broader question of whether Senate Democrats bent the rules, Pare said, “In the same way Senator Morgan attempted to utilize the rules that grant her ex officio voting privileges to derail a piece of legislation, Senator Lynch Prata used her authority under the rules to salvage the bill, which is the product of months of work and negotiation.”
Later Wednesday, Morgan and Sen. Jessica De La Cruz sent a formal letter to Ruggerio and the Rules Committee protesting how the abortion bill was handled on Tuesday and requesting that it be returned to Senate Judiciary for a vote.
Ruggerio responded Wednesday evening with a one sentence letter: “Your request is denied.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook