PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In a highly unusual move, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unilaterally transferred a high-profile abortion rights bill to another committee, apparently to avoid the measure being rejected by the panel for a second time.
The announcement by Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata stunned State House observers. It came just 24 hours after the committee released the text of a revised bill to guarantee abortion rights that had won the backing of the committee’s swing vote, Sen. Stephen Archambault, who had voted down a previous version of the bill last month.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will vote on the bill, the Reproductive Privacy Act, this Thursday at 6:15 p.m., Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said. A majority of the health committee’s nine members are believed to support the legislation.
The State House rotunda, already packed with protestors on both sides of the abortion issue leading up to the committee hearing, erupted in chanting after Tuesday’s vote was called off.
In a statement, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he authorized the move after learning the chamber’s top Republicans planned to invoke their so-called “ex officio” powers to join the committee for the day and vote the bill down. He called it “an unprecedented last minute political stunt.”
“Throughout the day, I implored Republican leadership not to undermine the hard work of the Senate Judiciary Committee by abusing their powers as ex-officio members,” Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said in a statement. “In fact, Democratic and Republican leadership held several discussions this session where we agreed that we would not vote in committee on the bill because we wanted the committee process to take its normal course.”
John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, was surprised by the move.
“Occasionally bills are transferred from one committee to another, typically because the jurisdiction of the originating committee is not a good fit,” Marion told WPRI 12. “It’s unusual, if not unprecedented, for a bill to be transferred moments before it is to receive an up-or-down vote.”
However, Marion added, it is also unusual for members of either party’s leadership to swing the outcome of a vote using their ex officio powers. “The Senate rules clearly allow the Republican leadership to vote ex officio as members of any committee, but they rarely exercise that power,” he said.
Rhode Island Right to Life expressed outrage. “They are bastardizing the process in pursuit of their desired outcome,” the group tweeted. “Disgraceful.”
Senate Republican Whip Elaine Morgan was in the committee room along with GOP Leader Dennis Algiere, suggesting both were prepared to vote against the bill. Morgan tried to object to the transfer, but Lynch Prata cited a rule which she said allows committee leaders to transfer bills at their own discretion.
Morgan, R-Hopkinton, laid out her concerns to reporters afterwards.
“Up until a week, or say a day, before the mother’s going to give birth, she can say, ‘I don’t think I’m ready to be a mother,'” she said. She also referenced a comment by Virginia’s governor, who is a doctor, during an abortion debate there earlier this year that he “would keep a baby, the infant, comfortable until the mother made the decision.”
“That’s murder,” Morgan said. “This bill is so bad. And this is what our process is for. We have a committee process to stop bad bills. This is a bad bill. This is not right. This is murder. This is just horrible. A horrible bill.”
Another senator who opposes the legislation, Coventry Democrat Lou Raptakis, said he plans to offer an amendment on the Senate floor that would add a clause saying it will only go into effect if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
But earlier in the day, Lynch Prata said there were several reasons why she believed it was “extremely important” to act on the issue now, chiefly “the feeling nationally that there is some urgency to this.”
“There are states that are passing complete bans or fetal heartbeat bills with the intent of appealing them to the Supreme Court to try and get current case law overturned,” she said.
“The more practical concern that I had with respect to getting it done this session is that the issue is not going away,” she said. “When we come back next session, our committee is made up of the same members, our chamber is made up of the same members. So I didn’t want to come back in January and try to reinvent the wheel.”
Both Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, were endorsed for re-election by Rhode Island Right to Life as recently as last year, leading many to assume they would not allow votes on abortion rights. But both leaders have bowed to pressure inside their caucuses and cleared the way for the legislation despite remaining personally opposed.
“I think it’s a good piece of legislation,” Ruggerio told WPRI 12 on Tuesday night. “I am not a supporter of it. But I felt that it should go out to the floor, where more than nine people had the right to discuss this particular issue.”
Invoking his four decades in the General Assembly, Ruggerio said, “I know what this issue is. It’s like no other issue that I’ve ever seen up here.”
The bill’s sponsors in the House have already said they will support the Senate’s changes if the abortion bill clears the upper chamber.
Those changes included removing the expansion of who may consent to a minor’s abortion; adding new language spelling out the attorney general’s power to prosecute if an attack leads to the death of an unborn child; requiring physicians who perform late-term abortions to record their rationale in a patient’s medical record; and allowing the Department of Health director to discipline physicians for unprofessional conduct.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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