PROVIDENCE — In another dramatic turn of events, Senate Republican leaders tried to derail an abortion rights bill in committee Tuesday evening, prompting Senate Democratic leaders to rescue the legislation by shifting it to another committee.
Just one day earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee had unveiled revisions to the bill, which aims to preserve abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
The revisions convinced the committee’s swing voter, Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat, to throw his support behind the bill after he had cast a deciding vote against it last month. So the bill appeared to be poised to emerge from committee and make it to the Senate floor for a vote on Thursday.
But the Senate Judiciary Committee never got a chance to vote Tuesday. As the committee members took their seats, Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere, a Westerly Republican, and Senate Minority Whip Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, appeared in the room. That was significant because, while they rarely exercise the privilege, Senate Democratic and Republican leaders are allowed to vote on any committee as “ex-officio” members.
And their presence was a sign they planned to kill the abortion rights measure in committee.
“We came up with language that satisfied the majority of the standing members of this committee,” began Senate Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat.
But, she noted, “There are ex-officio members of the committee that are appearing here today.” She said, “That is something that is not the normal and usual course,” and “I think that does a disservice to the members of this committee and to the people who sat here for 12 hours (listening to testimony).”
As a result, Lynch Prata said she was transferring the bill to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which is seen as a far more favorable route for the legislation.
Morgan, standing nearby, said, “Objection.”
“That is the ruling of the chair,” Lynch Prata said. “There is no motion and no objection appropriate at this point.”
“May I ask a question?” Morgan said. “This is not a Health and Human Services (issue). This is a legal murder issue.”
Lynch Prata said, “Senator, this is my committee and I am chair. I have made a ruling transferring the bill. If there’s an objection properly taken up on the floor, feel free to do so.”
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, immediately issued a statement, saying, “This morning I learned that Republican members sitting in an ex-officio capacity planned to launch an unprecedented last-minute political stunt to torpedo the bill.”
Ruggerio, who opposes the abortion rights bill, said Democratic and Republican leaders had previously agreed not to vote on the bill in committee so the committee process could take its normal course. He said that throughout the day on Tuesday, “I implored Republican leadership not to undermine the hard work of the Senate Judiciary Committee by abusing their powers as ex-officio members.”
But now, Ruggerio said, “The transfer of the bill to our Health and Human Services Committee ensures a path forward.”
The bill is scheduled to be taken up in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday evening. If it passes that committee, the bill would come to the Senate floor next week.
Senate Republican Leader Algiere said, “My caucus wanted me to go in to exercise my right to go in as ex-officio, which I did.” He said, “This is a bill that on both sides of the issue is a tough one, but my caucus wanted me to go, and I decided to go. Certainly, the chair exercised her rights in transferring the bill, which I respect.”
Algiere said he would expect the bill to pass the Health & Human Services Committee, and he said he plans to vote “no” when the bill reaches the floor.
Morgan noted that as minority whip, she is allowed to vote as a member of any Senate committee. “Those are the rules. We can do it,” she said. “And I believe in my heart that this is wrong. I made a commitment to my constituents that I would go in, and that is what I had to do.”
Morgan said the Health and Human Services Committee has not heard any testimony about the bill, yet she predicted the committee will pass it overwhelmingly because it contains “all left, liberal progressives.”
Hilary Levey Friedman, president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, spoke for the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, saying, “This is not how democracy works.” She said it was wrong for Republican leaders “to try to silence the voices of their colleagues and tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders.”
Levey Friedman said Thursday’s committee vote “should be the last hurdle in a long fight for this bill to get a full debate and vote by the Rhode Island Senate.”
Tyler Rowley, president of Servants of Christ for Life, based in Providence, said, “Chairwoman Lynch Prata expressed that she was upset because two members of Senate leadership, who weren’t engaged in the months-long debate over the bill, were going to vote on the bill, and then in the next breath she transferred the bill to be decided upon by nine people who also weren’t engaged. She undermined her whole argument with this move.”
Rowley said Democratic Senate leaders “got elected by telling their constituents that they are pro-life, but apparently they have been lying. They are the ones who orchestrated the bill’s transfer to a different committee to ensure the bill gets to the floor.”