UPDATED: Abortion bill transferred to HHS committee in move to thwart defeat


The Senate Judiciary Committee on June 11, 2019. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

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PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata transferred a high-profile abortion rights bill to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday night, in a move that would avoid the bill from being defeated for a second time.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday at 6:15 p.m., according to Senate spokesperson Greg Pare.

Lynch’s pronouncement came the day after it was announced that the revised bill had won the support of committee swing vote Senator Stephen Archambault, who had voted down an earlier version of the legislation in May.

In a statement, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he supported the bill’s transfer after learning that top GOP members including Republican Whip Elaine Morgan and Minority Leader Dennis Algeire planned to invoke their “ex officio” powers to join the Judiciary committee for the day and defeat the bill. He called it “an unprecedented last minute political stunt.”

“I have been clear that this critical piece of legislation should follow the normal committee process, whereby it would reach the Senate floor upon wining the support of a majority of the committee members. Last month, a version of an abortion rights bill failed to meet that threshold. At the time, I encouraged all parties to work together to craft a bill that would garner a majority of the committee members’ support.”

“A majority of committee members reached a consensus last week. I commend Chairwoman Lynch Prata for her strong and steady leadership and her passion, Sen. Archambault for continuing the dialogue and hard work, and all the members of the committee for their efforts regarding this matter.”

“This morning, I learned that Republican members sitting in an ex-officio capacity planned to launch an unprecedented last minute political stunt to torpedo this bill.

“Throughout the day, I implored Republican leadership not to undermine the hard work of the Senate Judiciary Committee by abusing their powers as ex-officio members. In fact, Democratic and Republican leadership held several discussions this session where we agreed that we would not vote in committee on the bill because we wanted the committee process to take its normal course.”

“The transfer of the bill to our Health and Human Services Committee ensures a path forward.”

Morgan told Tara Granahan on Wednesday morning that the RIGOP would look into ‘legal action’ regarding the venue change of the bill, later clarified by RIGOP Chair Sue Cianki to Granahan as a ‘rule challenge, not a legal one.’ Senate Rules Committee Chair Frank Lombardi told Granahan that the first he’s heard of a complaint was Granhan’s call to him seeking comment on it.

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In response to Morgan’s appearance on WPRO, Greg Pare, Director of Communications for the Senate President issued the following statement:

Perhaps Senator Morgan should learn all the rules before trying to bend them to her purposes. Sen. Lynch Prata has the unilateral authority under Senate Rule 6.14 to transfer any piece of legislation to another committee for any reason.

In the same way Sen. Morgan attempted to utilize the rules that grant her ex-officio voting privileges to derail a piece of legislation, Sen. Lynch Prata used her authority under the rules to salvage the bill, which is the product of months of work and negotiation.

The transfer of legislation from one committee to another is routine. This session and last, 19 bills were transferred from one committee to another. What is unusual is for Sen. Morgan to vote in her ex-officio capacity. This year and last, Sen. Morgan has voted in her ex-officio capacity only once, and that was in an instance when the Republican member of the committee was absent.

With regard to the bogus allegations by the Republican Party: Sen. Morgan did not ask to be recognized in committee. She never made a motion. She never even took her seat. She objected to the transfer of the legislation, but that is not an objectionable action in committee. A transfer is an action of the chairwoman, not a motion. It is not subject to debate in committee, and typically not even discussed.

The transfer takes place via a committee report that is read on the Senate floor. When Sen. Morgan attempted to object in committee yesterday, she was advised by Chairwoman Lynch Prata that the appropriate place to object would be on the floor. However, when the committee report was made on the floor yesterday, in accordance with the Senate Rules, Sen. Morgan did not object.

The legislation is now properly before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which will vote on the measure on Thursday. Should the bill pass committee on Thursday, it will come to the floor next week and all senators will have the opportunity to make their voices heard on behalf of their constituents. It is disingenuous of Sen. Morgan to suggest that democracy would be better served by the defeat of the bill in committee without a vote by the full Senate.

(As an aside: The transfer of legislation is routine, and the only reason it has drawn any attention in this instance is because of the high profile nature of the bill. As a recent example, S-454, requiring insurance coverage for contraceptives, was initially assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then scheduled for hearing. The hearing on the bill was not held and the bill was transferred to the Health and Human Services Committee on April 23.)