RICHMOND — Culture-war issues are heating up at the General Assembly, but fiery debates about abortion, voter access and other topics are leading to few changes in the law as the Republican House of Delegates and Democratic Senate cancel one another out.
Earlier Thursday, a Senate committee killed a slate of Republican-backed bills aimed at limiting access to abortion at various cutoff points — ranging from conception to 24 weeks, with some exceptions. House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) has yet to assign committees to hear any of the abortion access bills filed in that chamber, some of them at the behest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who made a priority of seeking a 15-week ban on abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Gilbert’s inaction has led to speculation that he is holding off on a tough political fight because the outcome is so clear once the bills get to the Senate. A spokesman for Gilbert referred to remarks on the subject the speaker made early in the session: “I know how to count to 51 in the House, and I know how to count to 21 in the Senate,” Gilbert said, referring to the number of votes needed to get a bill passed.
So it goes, day after day, as lawmakers dance around hot topics with the knowledge that none of them is likely to come to fruition. It is an election year, after all, with all 140 seats in the legislature on the ballot this fall in newly drawn districts. With that in mind, many legislators are more interested in making speeches than in taking controversial actions that could come back to bite them on the campaign trail.
“Everybody has to get ready for the election,” said Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax).
“I think it is showing the voters where we stand on the issues,” said Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach).
Here are some of the issues that have surfaced but that seem unlikely to survive the session:
Virginia allows abortion in the first and second trimesters, until about 26 weeks, and in the third only if the mother’s life or health is at serious risk, as certified by three doctors. Without comment, the Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday morning voted down three bills that would have further restricted abortion access in the state.
The strictest — Senate Bill 1284, from Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell) — declared that life begins at conception and would have banned abortion with two exceptions: to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest if those alleged offenses have been reported to police and the abortion is performed at 20 weeks or earlier.
Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford) proposed Senate Bill 1385 at Youngkin’s request to outlaw abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the mother’s life.
A third bill — Senate Bill 1483, from Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist — would have shrunk the window for legal abortion to 22 weeks or 24 weeks, depending on the viability of the fetus. Dunnavant described her bill as an update to the current law — written in 1975, at a time when a fetus could not be expected to survive outside the womb before 28 weeks — to reflect the “staggering medical advancements” that have lowered the number of weeks for viability.
“I really think the idea that you would abort a baby that can live if it was given to the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] is unsupportable,” she said.
Her bill provided for one exception after viability: to save the mother’s life. It also specified that abortion laws would not apply to the treatment of a nonviable pregnancy, a provision meant to address concerns that doctors fearful of running afoul of the law would hesitate in emergency situations to perform abortions needed to save the mother’s life.
Democrats were jubilant at a news conference after the votes.
“This is our time in history,” declared Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington). “We have to fight this fight for our children.”
Senate Democrats also talked up their own measures to protect or expand access to abortion, including one to enshrine broad abortion rights language in the state constitution. But those are not expected to prevail in the House.
The House debated a pair of absentee voter-related bills on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s final vote. Del. John J. McGuire III (R-Goochland) said his House Bill 1693 would eliminate ballot drop boxes — first created to make voting safer during the pandemic — because they are an unnecessary expense for local elections officials.
McGuire, a Trump die-hard who attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally on the National Mall but said he didn’t enter the Capitol, said that “a large portion of our population has lost faith in our elections system and by limiting these drop boxes, it would be a step in the right direction toward rebuilding faith in our election system.”
Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) countered that voter access bills passed by Democratic majorities in 2020, including the one creating ballot drop boxes, had finally broken Virginia’s long-standing reputation as one of the toughest states in which to cast a ballot.
“When we expanded access we also strengthened our election system. There isn’t fraud … these reforms worked,” VanValkenburg said.
Del. Phillip Scott (R-Spotsylvania) argued that his House Bill 1877, which would reduce the period of in-person absentee voting to 14 days from 45, followed the example of states such as Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey that utilize shorter periods.
“None of these states would claim that there is voter suppression with their elections,” Scott said.
Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News) noted that voters of both major parties have made heavy use of early balloting since it was enacted. “The attempts to roll back our progress are really highly suspect, because why would you not want all the people who want to vote to be able to vote?” Price said.
Both bills passed Thursday on 51-47, party-line votes.
Republicans in the House passed a bill Wednesday — House Bill 1378 — that prohibits Virginia from following the car emissions standards set by California. Virginia adopted that state’s standards as part of sweeping environmental legislation passed by Democrats two years ago.
Fourteen other states also follow California’s standards, which are stricter than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and often influence the practices of the auto industry. But Youngkin has made campaign hay out of bashing Virginia’s reliance on another state’s policies.
The bill faces a grim outlook in the Senate, which has already killed similar measures.
Books in schools
The House banished its army of middle school-age pages from the chamber floor Wednesday for a debate on a bill introduced by Anderson to require school librarians to list books with sexual subject matter and allow parents to prevent their children from checking them out.
Anderson held up graphic illustrations and read aloud passages describing sex acts from books that he said are in high school libraries in places such as Virginia Beach and Loudoun County.
“The reason that I did that is because I want to address the “big lie” that these books don’t exist, because they do,” Anderson explained to lawmakers.
His House Bill 1379 contains no penalties for librarians who “may have missed a book in good faith,” he said, and does not require that such books be removed. “It simply … allows parents to say, ‘I don’t want my children to have access to these books,’” he said.
Democrats argued that the bill’s definition of “graphic sexual content” is so broad that it could include classical paintings. Del. Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) said Republicans were “trying to play to their extreme MAGA base.”
That bill and another requiring the Virginia Board of Education to draw up model policies a school could use to remove objectionable library materials passed Thursday on party-line votes.
Afterward, Anderson said he had no illusions about the fate of his bill when it heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate. A Senate committee has already shot down Senate Bill 787, from Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach), which would have required written parental consent before a student could check out or handle sexually explicit school library books.
“This bill is dead on arrival,” Anderson said. “You saw what happened over here — not one Democrat voted for it.”