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Spin Control: Abortion bill’s absence frustrates open debate

Sun., Feb. 10, 2013, midnight

OLYMPIA – The claim by “coalition” senators that their regime ushers in an era of more open debate managed to stub its toe last week on one of the Legislature’s oldest and most divisive issues: abortion.

Shortly before the Senate Law and Justice Committee held a two-hour hearing last Wednesday on a bill requiring parental notification of any abortion on a woman younger than 18, Majority Leader Rodney Tom described it as a sign the coalition was open to discussing new ideas, or ones that had long been “bottled up” by the Democratic-controlled chamber.

Tom, one of two Democrats who joined the Senate’s 23 Republicans to create a ruling coalition, clearly wants the chamber to focus on three items he mentions like a mantra at every opportunity – jobs, education and the budget. The fiscal conservative/social moderate from Medina might prefer it take up almost anything but abortion.

While stressing he is a longtime supporter of abortion rights who doesn’t agree with the parental notification bill, he said one hadn’t been heard in 10 years and its supporters deserve a hearing. Besides, the other side of the issue would get a hearing on one of its issues, the Reproductive Parity bill, in the same committee a few days later, he noted.

Reproductive Parity, in a nutshell, requires any insurance plan that covers live births also cover abortions. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the Law and Justice Committee chairman and a longtime opponent of abortion, had announced the hearing on that bill earlier in the week, even though he strenuously opposes the bill. The hearing would provide a chance to show its flaws, he said in the announcement.

“I’m not afraid to give this bill a good airing, because the more facts that come out Friday the better. People on both sides will get ample opportunity to make their points,” Padden said.

The hearings would “get us away from demonization” of the two sides on the issue, Tom said. “Let’s have that debate. Let both sides present their case.”

By having the debate, Tom meant letting the public go at it in a hearing, not necessarily having senators verbally smack each other around on the Senate floor. Republican leaders said they were looking for “issues that unite us,” and clearly this ain’t one.

The parental notification bill got its hearing, and Padden, whom Tom described as a “stand-up individual,” was scrupulous in giving both sides due deference and equal time. Although the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, insisted it was about parents’ rights, not abortion, people speaking for or against it spent a good deal of time talking about abortion with some pretty familiar verbiage.

Shortly after Wednesday’s session, Padden cancelled the hearing on Reproductive Parity. He said Friday morning he made the decision because he believes it would jeopardize federal funding and invite lawsuits if passed.

“I never was a fan of the bill to begin with, and I worked hard to defeat it last year,” he said of a similar measure that died as time ran out for a deadline to pass bills. It might get a hearing elsewhere, he said.

An identical bill was referred to the Health Care Committee, whose chairwoman also is opposed to abortion and hasn’t scheduled a hearing. But Padden has no plans to reschedule it for Law and Justice.

Scheduling bills – and unscheduling them – is well within a chairman’s right. But the change undercut Tom’s claim of more open committees and more robust debate. It seemed suspiciously like something a liberal Seattle Democrat might do to a bill on parental notification, and may suggest that they aren’t more open, just closed to different things.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, sponsor of the bill pulled from Friday’s schedule, said he was frustrated by Padden’s decision. He said Tom has “given me his word that we’re going to hear it. I’m going to give him the opportunity to get it right.” 

One Democratic source said an option could be for Tom to try to get the bill reassigned to the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee, under the theory it involves a regulation for insurance companies.

Republicans in leadership might balk at that. The chairman of that committee is Hobbs, and it’s one of the few committees with more Democrats than Republicans. Even if that doesn’t happen, the issue is unlikely to go away for the coalition. The House likely will pass its version of Reproductive Parity and send it to the Senate.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at blogs/spincontrol.

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