Is the ultrasound abortion bill dead or alive? There has to be a more sensitive way to word the question.
Still, this is the most compelling storyline from the Legislature this week. Probably the most interesting storyline of the 2012 session.
My best guess: It’s too early to call this over. I’ll get back to that. But let’s first give Wednesday’s remarkable events their due.
As the day started, the ultrasound bill appeared to be on glide path to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. The bill had already cleared the Senate — which, historically, takes a dimmer view of hot-button social issues. The House State Affairs Committee was scheduled to take up the issue Thursday morning.
Then the issue went weirdly volcanic. Bill supporters demonstrated the ultrasound procedure for anyone with an inclination to gawk. Protesters showed up outside the Statehouse — and to add to the drama, a Democratic opponent, James Mace, announced a write-in challenge to Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, the sponsor of the ultrasound bill.
By Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans had raised enough objections to the bill that Thursday’s committee hearing was abruptly canceled. The bill remains on hold, at this writing.
The recap from Wednesday provides an important backdrop. Without question, the ultrasound bill is the most volatile issue of the 2012 session. Because it has exploded in March, less than two months before the party primary elections, it will be the issue, the vote, foremost on voters’ minds.
(In other words, step aside, Students Come First. The hotly contested education overhaul will still be an election issue, because it is the issue that most directly affects the greatest number of constituents. But politics is driven by the emotion of the moment, and this pushes education overhaul to second-string status — at least for the primaries, and until the Students Come First referenda show up on the November ballot.)
So here we are, with elections looming as soon as this Legislature finally adjourns. Some House Republicans see this unpopular, overreaching bill as a threat to their re-election. It could be. As we said in an editorial last week, the 2012 ultrasound debate has shades of the 1990 fight over a restrictive abortion bill that cost Republicans 10 legislative seats and control of the state Senate.
But first things first. Republicans will hold a historic closed primary on May 15, which is likely to draw a small but conservative voter sample. While some House Republicans might want no part of a vote on the ultrasound bill, others might see a yes vote as a way of solidfying their credentials with the right — even though requiring an intrusive medical procedure doesn’t exactly square with conservative ideals.
Now, let’s consider the 23 Senate Republicans who voted for the ultrasound bill Monday — going on record in favor of this coarse and coercive mandate.
Whether this bill becomes law or not, 19 of these senators will seek re-election this year. Eleven face opponents in the May GOP primary, and if Mace qualifies for the ballot to run against Winder, 12 will face contested races in the fall. Since these senators will have to spend the election year explaining their ultrasound vote to constituents anyway, they’d probably like to have some law to show for their efforts.
The X factor in all of this is Otter, who is prudently keeping his own counsel. Otter could veto this bill, and based on Monday’s vote, there would be just enough votes in the Senate to uphold a veto. But would the threat of a veto dissuade House supporters from at least forcing a vote and pressing the issue? I doubt it. Keep in mind, the legislators are on the ballot this year, unlike Otter.
Bottom line: I think it’s premature to declare the ultrasound bill dead, as some opponents did with glee after the bill ran into turbulence in caucus. There are too many senators with a stake in this issue now, and an undetermined, but likely significant, bloc of House members who considers this bill some combination of good policy and good politics. The Legislature can move rapidly in the final day of a session, especially when lawmakers consider it in their best personal interests.
Meanwhile, here at the Statesman, the beat goes on. On Sunday, we will run more than two dozen letters on the ultrasound bill, either in print or online. And they’re still coming in. It makes sense for the debate to continue. More likely than not, the bill remains very much in play.