Antiabortion forces in Maryland's House of Delegates were dealt a swift and punishing defeat yesterday when they defied legislative protocol and attempted to resurrect a measure that had been killed in committee.
By a suprisingly large 19-vote margin, the House voted to table a proposal by Del. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) that would have prohibited the use of state Medicaid funds to pay for abortions for poor women.
In the parliamentary world of the House of Delegates, tabling means ultimate, irrevocable defeat for any measure. It is a rarely used maneuver that bars a bill from any reconsideration during the remainder of the 90-day legislative session.
Opponents of abortion will, however, have another chance to do away with state-funded abortions when the House Appropriations Committee rules on the proposed budget for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the state agency that distributes Medicaid funds.
The devastating defeat of the Green bill yesterday apparently was engineered by a number of powerful delegates who were infuriated by the way the prince George's Democrat -- a relative newcomer -- handled his bill.
By petitioning to have the full House vote on the bill, instead of simply accepting the committee's decision to kill it, Green both offended the influential House leadership and left many of his potential supporters with a difficult choice.
Delegates who voted with Green would be showing a lack of faith in the traditional committee system, the system which gives the leadership control over the ebb and flow of legislation and allows a small group of legislators to fully debate an issue. A vote against Green's proposal, however, could be interpreted as a vote for state-funded abortions.
"This puts a number of delegates in a bad position." Paul Weisengoff, head of the Baltimore City delegation, said angrily in the middle of yesterday's debate. "I've always supported the committee system and I've always been opposed to abortions. So any way I vote I can't win."
Just before Weisengoff spoke, House Majority Leader John Arnick declared, "I believe the system is more important than any single piece of legislation."
The debate over the sanctity of the committee system also was laced with personal attacks on Green, who was accused by Weisengoff and Del. Daniel J. Minnick (D-Baltimore County) of encouraging abortion opponents to conduct a massive telephone lobbying campaign on behalf of his bill.
Green immediately reponded that "I had nothing to do with the calls" to other delegates and added, "I did not want to take the leadership on this issue. . . the leadership was imposed on me by others."
The Bowie Democrat then attempted to strip the parliamentary covering off the debate, saying, "This is a judgment call -- not a procedural call -- but a call that you will have to answer for to your constituents.
"I suggest we look at the issue and avoid the smoke and dust related to side issues," Green added. Speaking later at an impromptu press conference in the House lounge, he added that the whole question of opposing the committee system was only "an easy way to avoid the (central) issue (of abortion funding.)"
Green pinpointed what he believes to be the central question during the debate when he said, "We believe it is unjust for this state to force its citizens to pay for this act (abortion) which is repugnant to many of them.
"We believe strongly that this issue should be debated by the entire body."
Even before the decisive 67-to-48 vote by which Green's bill was tabled, there there were signs that the measure was doomed. The first indication came when Green was unable to persuade the House to delay consideration of the issue, for a day, a move that would have given some of Green's snowbound supporters a chance to get to Annapolis to vote.
Even after it was clear that the measure would be defeated, it still came as a surprise that the leadership chose to humiliate Green by moving to kill the bill permanently.
"Leo got treated very shabbily," Del. Gerrard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) said after the vote. "There's a pecking order in the House and he's not part of it and that showed."
There also was some speculation after the vote that members of the House leadership -- who had been embarassed early in the session when the delegates defied them and approved a plan to record all committee votes --had decided to deal decisively with this latest attempt to go over their heads.
Yesterday's actions, however, were by no means the final moves this year on the question of state-funded abortions. Some delegates predicted that a move will be made to amend the proposed budget of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, taking out the funds that would be used for abortions.
One member of the House leadership estimated that, in that case, as many as 21 delegates who either opposed the Green proposal or didn't vote on it yesterday would switch and vote against state-funded abortions.
In addition, State Sen. John J. Garrity is drafting a bill modeled on existing federal legislation, prohibiting state-funded abortions but allowing certain exceptions, such as cases where rape or incest is involved.