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Abortion measure halts action in House

TALLAHASSEE — With the clock ticking Thursday, an explosive bill to require women to get an ultrasound before an abortion gripped the state Senate and led Democrats to halt action in the House.

The late-session emergence of the abortion measure, and the still-unresolved state budget, is threatening the future of more than a dozen bills ahead of today's planned adjournment.

Among the measures near the finish line that now face grim prospects: a major property insurance overhaul, an energy bill, tougher restrictions on fraudulent solicitors and a ban on saggy pants at schools.

House Democrats used a procedural maneuver to effectively shut down all business in the morning as a threat to get the GOP leadership to shelve the abortion legislation.

"It was thrown in at the last minute and hasn't gone through any committees for discussion," said Rep. Jim Waldman, a House Democratic leader. "There's no reason to do it."

The move barely fazed Republican leaders who consider their work complete, except for the $70 billion state budget, and promised to force a vote on the abortion measure today.

More important, the message didn't stop the Senate from approving the abortion bill by a 23-16 vote after an emotional hourlong debate.

Under the legislation, all women seeking abortions must pay for an ultrasound and have the results described to them. The only exceptions are women at risk of significant medical harm or victims of rape or domestic abuse. All women could choose not to view the ultrasound if they sign a form.

"Maybe it will have an impact on your decision. Maybe," said Sen. Andy Gardiner, the Orlando Republican sponsor. "You realize that what you're dealing with is by far the most important decision in your whole life."

"We have the rights of the unborn to consider here," added Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican. "When we're arguing, we seem to leave that out."

Speaking in opposition, Bradenton Sen. Mike Bennett invoked the late Sen. Jim King, a socially moderate Republican who was instrumental in a 20-20 tie vote that killed similar legislation two years ago.

"You want them to feel more miserable on this tough choice," said Bennett, a Republican.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, said the measure would lead to more illegal abortions and risky methods. "If we're not careful, we're going to return to that again," she said.

For poor women who cannot afford the ultrasound, Bullard said, "we're putting them in a position where they may have to go back to the alley."

State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican running for governor, initially voted against the addition of the abortion language but then switched to vote yes. Dockery and Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, were the only women in the chamber to vote for the bill Thursday.

The ultrasound requirement was added to a larger health care bill (HB 1143) that would also prohibit the use of state or federal dollars for abortions, except to save a woman's life or in the case of rape or incest. Another last-minute amendment — aimed at the recent federal health care law — prevents Florida from enacting a health insurance mandate.

A related bill (SB 290) that passed the Senate 25-11 earlier in the day would widen penalties for causing car crashes in which unborn children die.

Currently, someone can be charged with vehicular homicide if a pregnant woman loses a "viable fetus," generally defined as 6 months old. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, would change the definition to "unborn child," which would include a fetus at any stage.

The full day of action in the Senate stood in stark contrast to the House, which spent most of the second-to-last day of the session not working. It considered five innocuous bills and left another 11 without action.

Four bills didn't get considered because they needed a waiver of the rules to come from the Senate. Such legislation needs a two-thirds vote, putting the Democrats — outnumbered 76-44 — in the position of controlling the agenda. It takes 80 votes to meet the threshold.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Abortion measure halts action in House 04/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 1:05am]

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