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House defies Carnahan, approves partial-birth abortion ban

September 15, 1999
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 427

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan said he expected a "good night's sleep" despite the prospect that he may soon become only the third governor this century to have a veto overturned by the legislature.

Carnahan's comment came after the House destroyed his hopes of an early victory in the battle over banning partial-birth abortion. They needed two-thirds, they got better than three-fourths, or 127-34, in favor of the ban.

"The legislators have spoken for the people of the State of Missouri. Now we go to the Senate and we are very confident we'll have the same vote," said Susan Klein, executive director of Missouri Right to Life.

During a press conference immediately following the vote, Carnahan said he will call a special session to consider a compromise ban, but only if the Senate sustains his veto. A Senate vote could come as early as Thursday.

"I support a ban on partial-birth abortion--one that is constitutional and contains a health exception for the mother," Carnahan said.

Courts have ruled that abortion bans are unconstitutional if they do not contain a health exemption for the mother.

But that isn't the issue, said the bill's sponsor.

"With 80 percent of support in both bodies--men and women, Democrats and Republicans--we have a good bill," said Rep. Bill Luetkenhaus, D-Josephville. "So many issues have been twisted that we forget the children."

The floor debate was largely monopolized by a Democratic party split over the impending vote, while the GOP remained mostly silent--except for one exuberant Republican.

"I know I'm young, I may not be wise, but I smell surrender, not compromise," said Rep. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County. Republicans voted unanimously in favor of the ban.

Compromise was exactly what Rep. Carol Mays, D-Jackson County, had in mind when she waved a compromise bill authored by Carnahan's chief legal counsel, Joe Bednar. Bednar said his bill was a compilation collected from bills defeated in past sessions. Regardless, Luetkenhaus predicted the Senate will approve his bill.

There were a few defections among those who supported the measure in its last incarnation, including two candidates for higher office.

State Treasurer candidate Rep. Brian May, D-St. Louis County, and Lieutenant Governor candidate Rep. Gracia Backer, D-New Bloomfield, flip-flopped during the veto session.

"I strongly support a ban on partial birth abortion, and that's what I thought I was doing in May. I now believe I was doing something more," May said from the House floor.

After more doing more analysis and gathering more information about the ban's potential use as a defense for persons who commit violence against abortion providers, May said he had to change his position.

"I want to pass a bill that is constitutional, not one that is a political fight," Backer told her colleagues. She said the House debate was being driven by a desire for power and political supremacy in the 2000 elections.

Overall, though, the House debated the incendiary issue in a relatively sedate manner. Members, for the most part, focused on the bill itself, especially its use of words.

"What the bill does is expand the definition of homicide," said Rep. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County.

"If lawyers can't agree with lawyers, and physicians can't agree with physicians, then we have poor language," said Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbial, referring to the variety of interpretations each side offered. "Let's use the right language, lets outlaw the procedure, let's know what we are doing."

Harlan, along with Columbia's other Democratic representatives, Vicky Riback-Wilson and Chuck Graham, voted to sustain the veto.

The fight isn't over, the governor said.

He must now try to persuade the 34-member Senate to sustain his veto. In May, the Senate approved the ban 27-6. To stymy the override the governor needs six Senators to change their vote.

"We have some Senators to visit with," Carnahan said.

Some capitol observers have expected Carnahan's friends in the Senate, primarily Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, to talk the ban to death. Such talking would prevent a vote from happening by monopolizing the allotted time.

Jacob led a similar filibuster in May when partial-birth abortion was last on lawmakers' agenda. He lasted more than 40 hours, but that attempt failed.

However, Senate Floor Leader Ronnie DePasco, D-Kansas City, said the ban will reach a vote.