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Florida Senate steers hard to right as session nears an end

TALLAHASSEE — Abortion. School prayer. A lawsuit over President Obama's health care plan. A race-related measure dividing Democrats.

These proposals gripped the Florida Senate on Wednesday in a sign that the once-moderate body is shifting ever more rightward under the leadership of future Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

The Senate spent much of the day debating three abortion measures, including two amendments to a health care bill (HB 1143).

One amendment requires women who seek abortions to have an ultrasound and have the images of the fetus described to them in most cases. The other amendment, sponsored by Haridopolos, prohibits the use of state or federal dollars for abortions.

"I do not think taxpayer dollars, in one form or fashion, should pay for abortions," said Haridopolos, who is leading a vanguard of conservatives in what he has called the ''new Senate."

The exception to the insurance-payment ban: abortions performed to save a woman's life or to terminate a pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest. The measure passed on a largely party-line vote, 24-11. But the overall health care bill is set for a vote by the full chamber as early as today.

Democrats said the measure also would prohibit women from paying for abortions through insurance policies provided by private employers who receive tax credits.

Incoming Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston predicted that the abortion measures would be the most important issue in the upcoming state elections, and that they would backfire on Republicans.

"When each of you goes home and campaigns, I really can't wait for the women to tell you what they think about this piece of legislation and this amendment," Rich said.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, responded: "They will be applauding us."

Sen. John Thrasher, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said he'd be proud to tell people that he tried to save public money.

The debate became more strained when the Senate voted 22-17 on the ultrasound requirement.

The ultrasound amendment requires physicians to perform the procedure and describe the fetus to the woman seeking the abortion, unless she has documentation to prove she is a domestic violence or sex crime victim. Women could also decline to view the image of the fetus, but would have to fill out a form documenting their decision.

"For all of you guys that are all for less government, today is the more-government and less-freedom day," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami-Beach. "What you're doing is invading the woman's right to make a choice. … This is a stain on the Legislature."

That last remark drew a rebuke from Thrasher. The St. Augustine Republican replaced a more moderate Republican, Jim King, who led a group of Republicans who stopped a nearly identical ultrasound measure two years ago.

A third abortion-related measure — a separate bill — would make the killing of any unborn child a homicide. Now, killing an unborn child is a homicide if the child is at least 24 weeks old. Democrats say the bill (SB 290) could challenge the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Roe vs. Wade.

The Senate also advanced a bill that ensures teachers and students can pray in public schools without fear of punishment (HB 31).

"My goal, when I came over from the House to the Senate, was to make sure the Florida Senate moves to the right," Haridopolos said.

Haridopolos also is pushing House Bill 7231, a measure to counteract two proposed constitutional amendments from a liberal-leaning citizens group, Fair Districts, that seeks to weaken the Republican Legislature's ability to draw legislative and congressional districts for political ends.

Haridopolos' co-sponsor for the proposed constitutional amendment, Sen. Gary Siplin, is an Orlando Democrat and leader of the black caucus who said he was concerned that the Fair Districts amendments would dilute minority voting rights. Siplin voted for both abortion measures attached to the health care bill.

A third amendment to the health care bill concerned Attorney General Bill McCollum's lawsuit to stop President Barack Obama's health reform initiative. The amendment from Sen. Carey Baker seeks to broaden McCollum's powers to push the lawsuit. The amendment passed 23-15.

Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who voted against the ultrasound bill, compared Baker's amendment to the abortion proposals. "Since we are against being forced to buy health care, are we still forced to purchase an ultrasound?" she asked.

The health care bill, the school prayer bill, the redistricting amendment and the unborn-child bill could all be voted on today in the Senate. The session ends Friday.

Rich, the incoming Democratic leader, said the package of conservative legislation is just the beginning. "It's obviously an example of the type of conservative agenda that is going to be promoted in the future," she said. "It is a new Senate. … It is much more conservative on social issues — well, on just about anything you look at."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida Senate steers hard to right as session nears an end 04/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:08pm]
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