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How outnumbered Democrats defeated a GOP-backed bill to ban nearly all SC abortions

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson planned to speak for only 15 minutes, buying enough time for his fellow Democrats to work on their filibuster strategy in the S.C. Senate chamber.

But eight hours later, the Charleston attorney still was standing at the Senate lectern, carrying the first leg of a daylong Democratic filibuster that ultimately delivered a shocking defeat to a GOP-backed ban on almost all abortions in South Carolina.

“I could have gone, probably, one or two more hours,” said Kimpson, who handed off the filibuster to Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews just after 8 p.m. Thursday. “This was a very important debate, and we could not afford to lose the floor, and I felt like I needed to carry the ball for as long as I could because I didn’t know at the time how long we would have been required to stay there.”

Facing a Democratic filibuster with no end in sight, the Republican-controlled Senate at 1 a.m. Friday voted 24-21 to kill the proposed abortion ban, which made exceptions only for cases of rape, incest or serious medical emergencies.

Banning abortion has been a priority of Republican candidates for governor and the state GOP during this election season. The proposal would have banned some 97 percent of the roughly 5,700 abortions performed in South Carolina each year.

The Friday collapse was a reversal from the 28-10 Senate vote late Wednesday night to pass the ban. But Democrats vowed to filibuster the third and final Senate vote. Senate Republicans gave in early Friday morning after four unsuccessful attempts to sit the Democrats down.

Ending the filibuster would have required 26 votes, but Republicans could get only 25 by 1 a.m. Friday. The Senate has 18 Democrats.

“With three (legislative) days remaining and other issues affecting a lot of South Carolinians that we have to address and no realistic opportunity of success in sight, we had to move on,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican who pushed to end the Democratic filibuster and ultimately voted to stop the debate.

'Huge risk' for SC Democrats

The ban’s defeat is a key victory for S.C. Democrats who in recent years have tried to fight off — sometimes unsuccessfully — State House proposals that would restrict a woman's access to abortion.

The proposal this year would have been the most restrictive ban of them all. That’s because state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, essentially dared Senate Republicans on Wednesday night to drop their proposed ban on rare “dismemberment” abortions and instead vote for an outright ban on almost all abortions in the Palmetto State.

The Republicans liked his suggestion, voting 24-1 to adopt it just before adjourning for the night. The vote amplified the abortion debate, offering S.C. Republicans a chance to pass a law that could spark a court challenge to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a woman's right to an abortion.

“When I went to bed Wednesday night, I wasn’t too pleased with Brad, quite frankly," Kimpson said. "But now, his strategy was masterful.”

State Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, said Hutto took a "huge risk that paid off" for his party.

"What he did could have killed both bills or changed the law in an inconceivable way in South Carolina," said Senn, who was in favor of the original "dismemberment" bill. "What Hutto did was either going to make him a hero of his party or fall flat on his face, and he became a hero."

Friday, Hutto stood behind his proposal to shift the debate to a more expansive abortion ban, saying that if it had passed, it would have been quickly struck down in the courts.

The Orangeburg Democrat noted that women's groups quickly mobilized against the outright ban, flooding the Senate gallery late Thursday with volunteers opposing the bill. On Friday, he declined to answer whether the Democrats' success had proved him a genius or simply lucky.

“It was going to be enjoined immediately and challenged in court,” Hutto said. “There was certainly a risk that it was going to pass, I understood that. But a risk that it was going to substantially change the law in South Carolina? Not unless Roe v. Wade is overturned, which I don’t think is going to happen.”

Senate GOP falls short

Senate Republicans had planned to carry the debate into Friday — an unusual step for a Senate that meets Tuesdays through Thursdays — and possibly into the weekend, if necessary, to test the Democrats’ resolve.

If a few Democrats had grown weary and gone home, Senate Republicans could have reached the three-fifths majority necessary to vote down the filibuster and pass the bill.

But that didn’t happen. Some Democrats canceled travel plans to stay in the chamber, including Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who was set to leave Columbia on Thursday for the Kentucky Derby.

All 45 eligible senators were present for the final vote at 1 a.m. Friday. If the filibuster had continued into next week, it could have killed a number of other bills that still must pass the Senate. That includes a handful of proposals addressing South Carolina's $9 billion nuclear fiasco.

“We didn’t have the votes,” Senate Majority Leader Massey said. “We weren’t going to get the votes no matter when it was.”

A few Senate Republicans repeatedly voted against ending the Democratic filibuster, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Both are former Democrats.

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, a vocal abortion opponent who has caught flak for voting — along with several other Republicans — to end the debate, said carrying on the debate into Friday was pointless.

"Everybody was willing to come back and debate the bill," the Lexington Republican said. "But it was at a point where the same things were being said over and over again. We just didn't have the votes. Why keep beating the issue over and over when you don't have the votes?"

Flat soles and egg rolls

Senate Democrats relied on creativity and resolve to power through an hourslong filibuster, which followed two days of debate on other proposed abortion bans.

Kimpson spoke for hours about the costs of defending a lawsuit, other issues the Legislature could be debating instead, and the implications the abortion ban could have on contraceptives such as the Plan B pill.

Throughout the speech, Democratic Sens. Mike Fanning of Fairfield and Mia McLeod of Richland bounced lengthy questions off of Kimpson to give him a break.

Veteran Democrats Hutto and Malloy were lining up speakers to follow Kimpson, Bright Matthews and Fanning at the lectern in an attempt to keep the filibuster going through early next week, if necessary.

Kimpson slipped out of his dress shoes behind the lectern, later admitting that he would have worn more comfortable kicks if he had planned to stand for eight hours. After Kimpson joked about a craving for Chinese food, an Irmo resident named Kim Baker — watching the debate from home — drove to the State House to deliver some to the Democratic caucus.

Bright Matthews, however, came prepared for her hourslong speech. She came wearing flats, having eaten a good lunch and spoken with doctors to learn more about abortion procedures.

“We’re just getting started,” she told the chamber as the clock neared midnight.

Outside the chamber, pro-choice activists started a hashtag, #StopTheBanSC, to encourage senators to do just that. Throughout the evening, women's groups and the S.C. Democratic Party recruited volunteers to come to the State House. State Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat running for governor, returned to the State House to support the filibuster.

Pro-life activists, meanwhile, were relatively quiet.

"I wish the pro-life organizations had more people there in the gallery for support, or in the lobby," Sen. Shealy said. "We did not have the support behind us. There wasn't anyone from the Republican Party. The gubernatorial candidates (with the exception for Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican running for governor, who was presiding) weren't there. A little more support could have energized the senators."

Gov. Henry McMaster's office Friday said the Richland Republican was keeping an eye on the debate.

"This underscores the need to elect conservative Republicans that are willing to fight for the unborn, against the Democrats funded by the Planned Parenthood machine," McMaster said Friday on Facebook. "The people of South Carolina deserve better than this, which is why I ordered that NO state funds go to Planned Parenthood. I promise that I will continue to fight until the lives of every person — young and old, born and unborn — are protected in our great state.

Picking up the pieces

S.C. Republicans were disappointed Friday, though the abortion fight likely will resume in the State House next year.

"First we lost a week of the legislative session. We didn't get to any other business," Sen. Senn said. "Then we lost 'dismemberment,' which could have been a winner. What I hope is this does not come back and replay itself next year. We have got to get into other business of the state."

S.C. Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said the state party is proud of "Senate Republicans who stood up to fight for the unborn and represent our pro-life principles." He said Republicans would spend the next two years reminding voters in Democratic districts how their senators voted.

Massey said he expects the Senate's strongest abortion opponents to be back next year with new proposals. But, he said, Senate Republicans should make sure they have the votes to win before setting up a debate on such a controversial issue.

“There might be a little more caution about jumping into something without having an exit strategy," he said.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @AveryGWilks; Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter
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