Any flickering hope that Gov. Harry Hughes may have had of liberalizing qualifications for Medicaid-funded abortions ended today when a Senate committee that previously had supported Hughes' proposal reversed itself.
Following the lead of a House of Delegates' vote last week, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted 8-5 to retain the abortion language that has been in the budget the last three years. That language, which has cut Medicaid-funded abortions in half in Maryland, pays for abortions only when the mother's life is in jeopardy, in cases of rape or incest, or when a doctor certifies in writing that the pregnancy poses a substantial risk to the mother's mental health.
The governor wanted to broaden the mental health allowance, and two weeks ago, the committee voted 7-6 in favor of the Hughes' position. At that time, abortion opponents, led by Sen. Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County), threatened to filibuster the budget bill on the Senate floor.
When the House voted 72-66 last Thursday to kill the Hughes language, budget committee chairman Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) and vice chairman Clarence W. Blount (D-Baltimore), after meeting with Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, decided to reverse their votes.
"We had the votes to get the more liberal language passed in the Senate but we didn't have the votes to stop a filibuster," Levitan said. "Steinberg was very concerned that we could tie up everything the Senate was trying to do on this one issue, and he didn't want to fight it that way. Also, we had the agreement from Kelly and his people not to try to go further on the issue for the rest of the term three more years ."
Kelly said today that he agreed not to try to wipe out Medicaid-funded abortions completely for several reasons: "First of all I don't think we have the votes on either side," he said. "Secondly, even though I think we got all we could, I'm not happy and neither is the other side. Maybe if we all agree to be unhappy we won't have to slug this out every year between now and 1986."
After the House vote, Hughes aides had expressed the hope that the Senate would support the governor and at least get the question sent to a conference committee, where more liberal language might be worked out.
"I'm disappointed we didn't fight it," said Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), who cast one of the five votes against the more restrictive language.
"Suppose we had been the lead house on the budget and had voted for Hughes' language?" Bainom asked. "Do you think the House would have just followed us? I doubt it. I think we caved too quickly."