RALEIGH — A controversial abortion bill was caught up in tensions among Republican legislators on Wednesday, as Gov. Pat McCrory threatened his first veto and House and Senate lawmakers stood their ground on different versions.
The Republican governor publicly warned on Wednesday morning that he would reject the Senates bill unless his public health agencys concerns about it were resolved. The threat came even as his administration and key House members were signing off on a rewrite of the bill, which was unveiled less than two hours later in a legislative committee.
Despite complaints from Democrats and abortion-rights advocates that there was no advance notice and that the bill was being rushed, Republicans on the judiciary committee approved the legislation and sent it to the full House. The House is planning three hours of debate on it Thursday and then will vote. The bill will then return to the Senate if its approved.
With the Republican governor working closely with House leaders to shape the bill, its prospects of passing in that chamber are good. But thats not necessarily the case in the Senate, where the bills main Senate proponent was not happy with Wednesdays turn of events.
Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican from Morganton, said he didnt know how other Senate Republicans would view the compromise worked out with the governors administration. But he said he preferred the original version, which he contended gives the state Department of Health and Human Services the flexibility it needs to regulate abortion clinics.
We believe we sent a good piece of legislation to the House, Daniel said.
Even with the House compromise, the veto threat still stands as the bill works its way through both chambers and potentially more revisions. The governor has been more closely aligned with the House than the Senate on recent issues, and his threat to veto the bill if its not to his liking seems aimed at the Senate as much as at any reluctant GOP House members.
Whether competing agendas will doom the bill, water it down or leave it intact is one of the more compelling dramas in the final weeks of the session. Legislators are trying to agree on a tax overhaul plan so they can pass a budget and adjourn.
McCrorys veto statement Wednesday urged legislators to focus on bills that help the states economy. A bill that carries out one of McCrorys priorities revamping the states job recruiting efforts has been slowed in the Senate after passing the House. He said he agreed with some of the abortion bill but noted DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos had spelled out the departments concerns at a House committee meeting Tuesday.
McCrory said he would veto the bill unless significant changes and clarifications are made addressing our concerns. McCrorys staking out a position on the issue followed a week of speculation about what he would do in light of his campaign promise not to support any new restrictions on abortions.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican from Charlotte, told the committee that she had spent hours on Tuesday with Wos and other DHHS officials and the governors office to work through their concerns. Samuelson said an agreement had been reached Wednesday morning but that the governors office didnt know for certain whether the compromise language would successfully be wrapped into an unrelated bill and approved in committee.
It was eventually put into Senate Bill 353, which originally was about motorcycle safety. Samuelson said it was a matter of finding an available bill that was already in a committee and could be acted on quickly. She said there wasnt time to give public notice about the maneuver.
She noted that the bill came over from the Senate in a hurry, and that the House could have voted not to concur with the Senate, which would have sent the dispute behind closed doors to a conference committee of the two chambers. Instead, in what House leaders are calling an unprecedented move, a committee hearing was held on the bill for two hours on Tuesday.
Were nearing the end of session, Samuelson told reporters afterward. Things move quickly. We wanted to make sure we got this done and didnt leave it hanging.
The changes seem to relax the standards that abortion clinics would have had to meet under the Senate version sharing some regulations with ambulatory surgery centers but not requiring them to be identical and allowing pregnant women to take abortion-inducing drugs at home after taking an initial dose at a clinic under a doctors supervision.
Democrats and abortion-rights groups said the wording on clinic regulations was vague and could even turn out worse for clinics because it could be interpreted more stringently. Samuelson acknowledged that it was still a little unclear.
Opponents say the bill could force abortion clinics in North Carolina to close because they wont be able to afford costly upgrades, estimated at $1 million for each clinic.
It directs DHHS to use ambulatory surgery center standards where applicable. It requires those standards to address on-site recovery, privacy and provisions for medical complications while not unduly restricting access.
We want to make sure these procedures are not designed to close down clinics, Samuelson said.
It also allows DHHS to impose temporary rules to speed the process along. Temporary rules can be put in place with less public notice and input, and are not subject to legislators approval, unlike the permanent rulemaking process. Last week, McCrory criticized the Senate for rushing the abortion bill through without advance public notice.
Opponents picked up that theme on Wednesday at the House committee meeting.
This is clear evidence this is not about safety and health issues, said Paige Johnson, vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood. This is really about a political agenda. Theres no excuse for this rash and irresponsible behavior, but it shows their hand.
Laura McGee with the N.C. Values Coalition defended the way the GOP handled the bill, since parts of it had been debated before and the General Assembly streams floor sessions and some committee meetings online.
The General Assembly does a really good job of making every session open to the public, and it is a very transparent process, she said.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville, said if the bill becomes law it is certain to be halted by the courts.
The majority thinks they can get away with it, unrestrained by the Constitution of the United States, unrestrained by any real attempt to find a middle, moderate ground on a divisive issue in a centrist state, Glazier said.