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Divided state Senate spars over abortion rights amendment

New York State Senate

In a spirited floor fight in the state Senate, Democrats tried once again but failed to get a vote on an amendment on women’s reproductive health care.

The argument over Senate procedure led to accusations that some Republican senators were trying to “mansplain” the rules to the state’s female lieutenant governor.

The day began with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul on the dais, presiding over the Senate. Hochul’s presence is significant because the Democrats and Republicans in the chamber are split into two factions of 31 seats each, and Hochul has the power to cast a deciding vote on procedures in the chamber.

Republicans still are in the majority in the Senate because they technically hold 32 seats, but one GOP member, Tom Croci, is away on military duty.

Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she and the GOP leadership agreed that Tuesday would be the day when Democrats could present their long-awaited amendment to enact the women’s reproductive health act. The measure, among other things, codifies the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision into state law.

“We had an agreement,” Stewart-Cousins said, “… that we would present the amendment.”

And she said the process was supposed to go according to long-held traditions whenever the minority party offers a hostile amendment. The majority allows the amendment to be introduced, and then holds a voice vote on the measure.

“It’s scripted, and you do the script,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But that’s not what happened.

The amendment advanced on the floor, and Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger rose to talk about the provisions of the measure.

“May I speak on the amendment?” Krueger asked.

Republican Deputy Majority Leader and floor leader John DeFrancisco objected.

“Point of order,” he said.

DeFrancisco said while the Senate rules say the amendment can be introduced for an up or down vote, the rules preclude actually talking about the substance of the amendment on the floor.

“Whatever rule you came up with, that’s not the rule of this house,” DeFrancisco said, pounding his fist on his desk. “Otherwise, we can get up and talk about anything we want on another bill.”

Once again, Krueger tried to speak, but was again interrupted — this time by Senate Leader John Flanagan.

“I just want to make sure, do you have copy of the rules of the Senate up there?” Flanagan asked Hochul.

Hochul responded that she did have a copy of the rules, and once again called on Krueger, but Flanagan again objected.

“Madame President, I’m still speaking,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan went on to explain his understanding of the procedures.

Finally, Krueger was cleared to speak. But she was stopped again when DeFrancisco pulled the amendment off the floor altogether.

“I move to withdraw our approval of the amendment,” DeFrancisco said. “And lay this bill aside.”

No vote occurred.

Robin Chappelle Golston, with Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, the lobbying arm of Planned Parenthood, said it’s “very disappointing” that the measure was not debated or voted on. And she said the male GOP leaders were “disrespectful” to the lieutenant governor and the female legislators.

“There’s no bigger example of mansplaining than what Senator Flanagan and (DeFrancisco) did,” Chappelle Golston said.

Many Senate Democrats also felt the Republican leaders were patronizing toward the Democrats. Stewart-Cousins said her GOP colleagues did not behave with their usual decorum and that there was a “tone” in their responses that she is not accustomed to hearing.

“They are just so terrified about talking about women’s health, talking about women’s rights, talking about all of these things in 2018,” Stewart-Cousins said, “that they’d rather just walk away.”

A spokesman for Flanagan, Scott Reif, said the GOP was simply following procedure and the dispute was about “adhering to the rules of the chamber.” He said the Republicans upheld their end of the bargain by allowing the amendment to come to the floor.

Stewart-Cousins said the Democrats will try again to get the amendment on the floor and won’t rule out attaching it to every bill that comes before the Senate.

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.