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Cuomo's abortion rights proposal stalls in Senate

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A key component of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2013 agenda appears in jeopardy, as the governor concedes he does not currently have enough votes in the State Senate to bring an abortion rights bill he has championed to the floor.

State Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos says a bill to put into state law the abortion rights protections in the federal Roe vs. Wade decision won’t be voted on in the Senate.

“We’re  not going to put in on the floor,” Skelos said. “In my opinion and the opinion of my conference, that bill is not moving.”

New York’s right-to-choose abortion laws precede the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, and supporters says the state’s laws need to be updated in case the Supreme Court case is ever overturned. But Senator Skelos, in an interview with public radio and television, says that’s not going to happen.

“Abortion, whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, is not going to go away in New York state,” Skelos said.

Cuomo admits he has a “difference of opinion” with Senator Skelos.   

“He’s been opposed to the choice vote for many, many, many years,” Cuomo said, “I understand that.”

Skelos has for weeks now labeled the abortion rights provision “extreme,” saying it would make late term abortions more prevalent.

“Literally up to the date of when that child would be born,” said Skelos, who says the bill would also eliminate current criminal penalties for killing a fetus if someone murders a pregnant woman.

Backers deny that, but there is currently no actual bill that’s been written to spell out exactly what the Governor wants. Cuomo concedes he does not currently have the right formula for legislation that would garner enough votes in the Senate.  

“We do not yet have language for a bill where we have identified enough votes with certainty that it would pass,” Cuomo said.

There are around 30 Democrats in the Senate who would likely vote for a version of the reproductive health act, but 32 votes are needed to pass legislation.

Senator Jeff Klein is the leader of the four member Independent Democratic Conference, which controls the Senate along with the GOP. He says he’s a strong supporter of strengthening the state’s abortion rights laws. But he also admits the votes currently are not there.

"I think more than anything we need a calculator,” said Klein. “We need to figure out a way to have a bipartisan agreement.”

Cuomo is meeting with a coalition of women’s groups, including NARAL Prochoice New York, and the National Organization of Women, to try to craft bill language. The goal of the governor and the women’s groups is to come up with legislation that is palatable to a handful of moderate Senate Republicans, who could join with the Democrats to vote yes, says NARAL’s Andrea Miller.

“There are many Republicans who have a belief in a woman’s right to choose as their core conscience,” Miller said. “And who have districts where this is a strong majority.”   

Miller concedes that without an actual bill, it’s easy for opponents like Senator Skelos to present what she says is a mischaracterization of the proposal. And she says the senator has put himself “between a rock and a hard place.”

“The leader has drawn a line in the sand on this issue, he drew it very early,” Miller said. “Perhaps his hope is that he won’t be able to come up with something. I think he’s wrong.”

The governor says ultimately, he wants the issue of women’s reproductive rights to be voted on.

“People have a right to know where the elected officials stand,” the governor said.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.