With only nine legislative workdays left before adjournment, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says the Senate needs to rethink its reluctance to end filibusters.
The Senate found itself in a stalemate last week over abortion, with Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg County senator, filibustering an amendment that would grant exceptions to an abortion bill.
The Senate voted twice on motions to sit Bright down but failed. It also failed to adopt a motion to carry over the legislation.
Unless the bill is disposed of, the Senate cannot finish its work on a Capital Reserve Fund bill or begin debate on a road-funding bill.
“The Senate is going to have to come to terms with its use of cloture (ending a filibuster) when someone is just attempting to stall and block,” Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Greenville News.
“At some point in time, we’re going to have to resolve to demonstrate that the Senate is either going to take these matters up and deal with them and not let a small faction block the Senate, or we’ll just sit there for days on end on the bill we’re on.”
Filibusters remain a potent tool in the Senate for those in the minority on an issue who want to negotiate or call attention to their positions. Senators also can prevent a bill from being considered just by lodging an objection, requiring a two-thirds vote to bring the matter up for debate.
Using such tools is not uncommon near the end of a legislative year but also a reminder why it is sometimes easier for bills to be blocked in the Senate than passed.
Martin said filibusters remain a threat for the next two major issues of debate and are possible for other major pieces of legislation coming back from the House, including domestic violence reform.
“It doesn’t take much at this stage to slow-walk the calendar,” he said.
He said Democrats are hesitant to end filibusters because they are the minority party in the Senate and may have to use a filibuster to be heard on legislation.
In fact, Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, warned the Senate last week that he was prepared to spend time at the podium with Democratic colleagues if the Senate refused to adopt exceptions to the abortion bill.
Bright told The News on Monday that he has “offered some options” to ending the filibuster “and I’m just waiting on folks to reply.”
“There’s been movement on my end I just don’t know about their end,” he said. He declined to get into details about his negotiations.
The abortion bill, authored by Rep. Wendy Nanney of Greenville, would ban abortions for women beginning at 20 weeks pregnancy, down from 24 weeks under current law. At least 13 states have passed similar legislation.
Hutto worked with senators on both sides of the issue to put an amendment up that would grant exceptions for the life and health of the mother, for victims of incest or rape and in cases of severe fetal anomalies, defined as instances in which a doctor determines a fetus wouldn’t be able to live once born without the aid of life-support.
The Senate voted 31-10 to table the amendment, prompting Hutto to tell the Senate he had hundreds of amendments prepared that could take the remainder of the session to deal with.
Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican and supporter of the bill, then asked that the Senate reconsider the proposal, which it did on a voice vote.
Grooms told the Senate he opposes exceptions to abortions, especially for rape or incest, but said he was willing to compromise to get something passed.
That’s when Bright took to the podium and told the Senate he was prepared to stay there for nine days to “educate” the Senate about why it was a bad idea to pass the exceptions.
Bright released a statement over the weekend explaining what he did.
“In order to prevent a wholesale defeat of the basis of this pro-life legislation, I began speaking on the bill in order to prevent it from being swept away in a frenzy to get to the gas tax legislation,” he said.
Ending a senator’s filibuster, the process called cloture, requires 24 votes of the 46-member Senate on second reading and 26 votes or 3/5 of the senators present, whichever is lower, for the final vote. Senators must wait at least one hour before moving to end a filibuster.
“I personally don’t have any problem voting for cloture when it appears all someone is doing is stalling,” Martin said.
Martin said it “doesn’t appear reasonable” to members of the pro-life community to hold the bill up.
But Bright said the pro-life community has falsely been told that unless the Senate passed the exceptions, the bill would be dead.
He said this is the first of a two-year session.
“I will not go along with those who are willing to surrender at a moment’s notice in order to achieve some greater good,” Bright said in his statement. “The issue of life is too important.”
He also said while the House might “correct” the exceptions, if passed by the Senate, he does not want to depend on the House to do that.
Bright said he believes the language on the exceptions is so vague and lose it could be used liberally by women and abortion doctors to permit more abortions than should be allowed under the law. He notes, for instance, that the amendment does not require a woman to report an act of incest to police or the state Department of Social Services, and women could say they were raped for an abortion to proceed.
He said he expects another vote to end his time at the podium if a compromise isn’t worked out but he said that doesn’t mean he will stop fighting on the bill if the Senate votes to end his talking. He said last week that he would prepare hundreds of amendments to the next two major bills if the Senate passes the exceptions.
“The cloture vote may not be the end of the discussion,” he told The News. “It may be the beginning.”