Democratic lawmakers on a Florida Senate committee ran out the clock Tuesday on a bill that would require parental consent for abortions, slowing — though not stopping — lawmakers from taking up the controversial proposal during next year’s legislative session. The delay, which kicks a vote on the bill into mid-December, could stall what may be one of state lawmakers’ most contentious decisions on a political live wire going into a presidential election year.
Under current Florida law, minors must notify their parents or guardians before obtaining an abortion — or secure a judicial waiver in cases like medical emergencies to bypass that requirement. SB 404, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would add a requirement that minors must also obtain a parent or guardian’s consent before having an abortion.
Supporters say that the bill is meant to strengthen families and ensure those decisions include parents or guardians. But opponents have argued that the bill is instead meant to weaken minors’ access to abortions and is a “Trojan horse” meant to put the issue of abortion back before a more conservative state Supreme Court.
The bill’s House companion, HB 265, was fast-tracked through a single committee to the full House late last month, and Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Health Policy committee was scheduled to be the bill’s first of three stops before it is taken up by the full Senate.
But the four Democratic senators on the majority-Republican committee — Sens. Lauren Book, D-Plantation; Lori Berman, D-Lantana; Janet Cruz, D-Tampa and Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg — filed 15 amendments to stymie the bill. Each of those amendments, ranging from limiting the bill to children under 16 to removing an existing requirement that parents or guardians be notified of minors’ abortions, were all swiftly tabled or voted down on party lines.
Only one amendment, brought by Stargel to clarify a minor in the bill as unemancipated, passed without debate or opposition.
The bill hearing was further slowed by about a dozen advocates, who gathered in the House Democrats’ office ahead of the meeting to fill out appearance cards supporting every single amendment. They and several dozen pro-life activists with the Christian Family Coalition watched as lawmakers ran out of time, after rejecting most of the amendments, to debate the bill and hear public testimony.
Senate rules dictate that committee meetings cannot run over their allotted time, and that any motion to require a vote at a certain time — regardless of the amount of testimony or debate — must be supported by two-thirds of the committee present.
A early motion that was made to hold the vote at the end of Tuesday’s meeting failed, in part because all four Democratic senators on the 10-person committee declined to support it and because two Republican senators were late to the meeting.
But the delay is temporary. Sen. Gayle Harrell, who chairs the committee, promised it will be on the agenda when the committee meets again in four weeks.
“I was very much hoping we could get it done today,” she said, noting that the committee had heard the same bill during the most recent legislative session. “But we want to make sure this is a thoughtful process. We’re going to fully vet the issue again.”
She acknowledged that if Democratic senators bring more amendments at the next hearing, they will have to be heard so long as they are substantively different: “That’s our process. That’s what the rules require.”
But she added that she intends to ask those lawmakers ahead of time to let the bill proceed at the next meeting.
Other senators on the committee criticized the slowdown when the committee adjourned Tuesday.
“What we’ve witnessed is delay of game,” Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said of his Democratic colleagues’ moves.
But Berman, who asked several of the questions that delayed the end of the meeting, disagreed.
“This is not a game,” she said. “This is our constitutional right to privacy and this is women’s reproductive health rights. We need to make sure that when we’re going to hear any bills that deal with those issues that it has to be fully fleshed out.”
The bill is expected the pass the Florida House when lawmakers officially start their session next year. It also appears likelier to pass the more moderate Senate than in years past: Senate President Bill Galvano told reporters last month that he personally supports the bill and that it is expected to move more quickly through its committee stops.
Should the bill pass its first committee in December, it has two more hearings before the Senate’s Judiciary and Rules committees before it can be considered by all senators on the floor. The next legislative session begins Jan. 14.