After an unprecedented parliamentary fight that was as passionately debated as the issue itself, the Virginia Senate voted again yesterday to kill a measure that would have allowed state funding of abortions for poor women.
The 20-to 18 vote followed a bruising battle that started Thursday and continued yesterday morning over the question of whether the first vote could be reconsidered. The question centered on when the first results were "communicated to the House," which normally signals the final action by one chamber.
At this point, the bill is dead and a woman receiving Medicaid assistance would be able to get a state-paid abortion only if her life is in danger.
The reconsideration issue was particularly tense because supporters of the bill had persuaded one senator, Coleman Yeatts (D-Pittsylvania), to change his "no" vote to "yes", which would have tied the vote at 19 to 19.
In that case, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb would have had to cast a tie-breaking vote, and indications are that he would have voted for the funding. Robb has said that he is personally against abortion but does not think that poor women should be denied a legal medical procedure available to more affluent women.
But this scenario did not materialize because another senator, Frank Nolen (D-Staunton), switched his vote from "yes" to "no", offsetting Yeatts' switch.
"I was against the motion to reconsider," Nolen said. "My mail has been running heavy against (the bill). I voted my convictions the first time, and my mail the second time."
Yeatts, too, said that a cross-section of the constituents wanted him to support the bill.
The measure was previously approved by the House and a Senate committee, but failed on the Senate floor after several amendments were rejected that would have placed more restrictions on when funding for a Medicaid abortion would be available. At least four more Senators said they would have supported the bill if those amendments, one of which would have required a hospital surgery review panel to approve the operation, been accepted.
The parliamentary struggle erupted Thursday afternoon following the noon recess after Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) told the Senate that he had instructed the Senate clerk to "communicate" bills to the House after they were voted on, instead of waiting until a recess or adjournment as is the procedure during the rest of the session. Brault said he normally does this because of the crush on bills that are acted on in the last few days of the session in order that business can be completed.
Sen. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), a supporter of the bill, said at that point thay by dispatching the bill so quickly supporters had been prevented from asking to have the bill reconsidered. "It's not the proper way that business should be done," Wilder said.
"I regret I did not make this known," Brault said, "It was done last year and the year before. It was not intended as a move to forestall reconsideration of the bill."
Later Thursday afternoon the Senate recessed so that the Rules committee could discuss the issue. The panel questioned Senate clerk Jay Shropshire, who said that as soon as he had been told by Sen. Willard Moody (D-Portsmouth) that a reconsideration of the bill was desired he tried to call the House clerk to prevent delivery of the bill. By that time, the House had adjourned and there was no answer to his phone call.
Several senators took the position that since a move to stop delivery of the bill had been made, the bill should be returned. Others said that once the bill had left the Senate it was no longer eligible for reconsideration.
Robb was sent to discuss the question with House SPeaker John Warren Cooke. Robb said later Cooke told him that if Robb wanted the bill back because it had been mistakenly delivered he would have to ask for it then and there, as opposed to taking the question back to the Senate for a decision. Robb decided to get the bill back.
Brault also took the floor yesterday to excoriate the Washington Post, which he claimed had implied in a story on the abortion bill yesterday that he had sent the bill over quickly since he opposes abortion.
"If there is anyone who thinks I attempted to manipulate the handling of (House Bill) 502, I wish you would come up and say it to my teeth," he said. He said the article was "grossly and unfairly inaccurate."
Speaking on the same point, Moody remarked on the dispute, "This may not happen again in a thousand years . . ."