Admins' note: In yesterday's blog post on the passage of Governor McDonell's pro-life amendment to HB1 900, we promised a complete insider story today since the media wasn't there to cover it all — because they weren't there to see it all happen! It's a shocking story of courage and blunders and unexpected endings. Please read to the very end so that you can see which four key legislators to pass along your gratitude for this momentous victory. On March 25, Governor Bob McDonnell proposed an amendment to HB 1900 and SB 921 prohibiting health insurance plans that are part of federal health insurance exchanges required by Obamacare from covering abortion services except in the case of rape, incest or life of the mother. The Family Foundation had advocated for the amendment and was pleased with the governor's introduction of it. The next step in the process was for the General Assembly to accept it.
The Family Foundation knew that with a solid pro-life majority in the House, the victory in that chamber was likely. But the same could not be said of the evenly Senate. Two Senate Democrats (Senators Chuck Colgan (D-29, Manassas) and Phil Puckett (D-38, Tazewell)) are pro-life and have previously voted with the Republicans on life issues. Conversely, Senator John Watkins (R-10, Powhatan), the patron of SB 921, had indicated that he did not like the amendment. Additionally, there were other swing senators who had not declared their intentions and with just one of those senators able to tip the balance, so the outcome was in doubt.
Wednesday began early with visits to the likely swing votes by lobbyists from The Family Foundation, The Catholic Conference, the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists, and Virginia Society for Human Life. The meetings with the swing votes were going well, but still, there were a lot of behind the scenes conversations taking place.
The House debated HB 1900 first. Delegates Jennifer McClellan (D-71, Richmond) and Kaye Kory (D-38, Falls Church) decried the effects of this amendment — the statement was made that this amendment would prevent women from purchasing abortions with their own money. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Delegate Todd Gilbert (R-15, Woodstock) made an impassioned plea for support of the amendment. He urged delegates who may be pro-life, but did not prefer the specific language of the amendment, to consider the potential impact of the bill and to set aside their hesitation for the benefit of vulnerable life, and asked:
If we can even save just one life with this amendment . . . is it not worth it? Will you not support it because the language is not perfect?
The time for the vote came and the amendment passed 55-37-1 with seven delegates not voting.
As the evening waned, the Senate finally took up HB 1900. Senator Watkins began by recommending rejection of the governor's amendment citing various reasons, many of which were factually inaccurate.
Several Senators opposed to the amendment spoke, among them were Dick Saslaw (D-35, Springfield), Ralph Northam (D-6, Norfolk), Mark Herring (D-33, Leesburg), John Edwards (D-21, Roanoke) and Barbara Favola (D-31, Arlington). Frequent was the blurring of the lines between private-pay and taxpayer-subsidized health insurance. They stated that HB 1900 as amended would tell private citizens what they were and were not allowed to spend their private dollars on and that this was inserting government into the doctor-patient relationship — both of which are inherently false statements.
Senators Dick Black (R-13, Sterling), Jeff McWaters (R-8, Virginia Beach) and Tom Garrett (R-22, Louisa) all stood to verbally defend the amendment. Senator McWaters spoke from his extensive knowledge of the health insurance industry stating:
This amendment speaks directly to what is and is not a covered benefit, so I think this fits [speaking of the amendment's germaneness to the bill]. What this boils down to is taxpayers paying for abortions.
Senator Garrett called opponents' claims "intellectually dishonest," and said:
This bill in no way, shape, or form eliminates anyone's ability to abort their child. It does, however, rightfully address how taxpayer dollars will be used. ... We talk about private contracts, but these private contracts, by the language of the bill, are administered with public funds, therefore it's not a private transaction. And we talk about this bill as if it's demeaning [in reference to a statement by Senator Favola]. It is hard for me to conceive of something more demeaning than a human life tossed into a refuse bin, a garbage can.
The Senate recessed for 15 minutes. Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg) requested the Republican Caucus to meet briefly. As they met, The Family Foundation began hearing rumors that the bill would be returned to committee (killing the amendment as well as the bill). While the Republican Caucus was meeting, Senator Mamie Locke (D-2, Hampton) began packing up her belongings and made her way out of the building seemingly leaving the Capitol for the night. The Family Foundation began to wonder if this signaled that the Democrats had somehow locked up the vote and didn't even need her guaranteed vote. Meanwhile, the Republicans returned from their recess and Senator Locke reentered the building, but her chamber desk remained cleared of her belongings indicating she would not be there for much longer.
Senator Saslaw took the floor and said that he believed the governor's amendment to be inappropriately applied to the bill. He then asked the Lieutenant Governor to rule on the amendment’s germaneness (i.e. relevance to the bill section). Lieutenant Governor Bolling declared the amendment germane. In a rare parliamentary move, Senator Saslaw made a motion to appeal the ruling. A vote was taken. 20-20. The motion failed (21 needed) and the ruling stood. The Senate immediately took another recess.
Senator Janet Howell (D-32, Reston) went over to the desk of Senator Harry Blevins (R-14, Chesapeake) (who had not made his intentions on the amendment known and has historically been a swing vote on life issues) and began a dialogue. Chaos now reigned on the usually staid Senate floor. No one knew what was going to happen next.
The Senate returned from their recess, debate continued for a few minutes and finally the vote on the amendment was called. The Family Foundation was on pins and needles, waiting for the votes to begin registering on the voting board. The vote was announced. 20-19. To pass the amendment, Senators Colgan and Puckett joined 18 Republicans (Senator Watkins voted no and Senator Blevins did not vote). But the chaos didn't end. Both Republicans and Democrats appeared to be in a state of total confusion. Clearly 20-19 was not the vote they were expecting. But it was too soon to declare victory and celebrate. The Senate again recessed. Senator Saslaw went to Senator Blevins' desk to do more dialoguing. In the meantime, Senator Locke exited the chamber again.
The Senate returned from its recess, but still — chaos reigned. At least half of the members were out of their seats, congregating in small groups around the chamber, whispering furiously. Many senators studied their Senate Rules books. The Family Foundation braced for what was to come.
Senator Blevins stood and stated that he had intended to vote and he would like to reconsider the vote by which they passed HB 1900 (each vote is allowed to be reconsidered just once per Senate rules). However as Lieutenant Governor Bolling pointed out, Senator Blevins did not vote on the prevailing side by which HB 1900 passed and therefore Senate rules prevented him from making the motion to reconsider the vote. Senator Norment jumped to Senator Blevins' aid, promising "nothing nefarious" to the Democrats; instead citing an error on the part of Senator Blevins and made a motion to reconsider the vote by which HB 1900 passed. The procedural vote on reconsideration was taken and it passed 40-0 (these procedural votes are typically unanimous). However, the problem was, only 39 members were in the chamber. Again, Senator Locke was not to be found. Lieutenant Governor Bolling motioned Senator Don McEachin (D-9, Richmond) up to the dais — seemingly to discern where Senator Locke was and how 40 votes registered even though only 39 were in the chamber. The Senate was at ease yet again while a search party was sent for Senator Locke.
While the Senate was at ease, The Family Foundation talked with Senators. The general consensus was that we did not have the votes. Another vote would be taken when Senator Locke returned and the amendment would fail. A feeling of disappointment washed over the pro-life lobbyists waiting in the gallery for the results.
A few minutes later, Senator Locke reunited with her desk, the vote on the amendment was for the second time put before the body. It felt to The Family Foundation as if confirmation of disappointment was imminent. The clerk announced the vote: 20-19. Shocking to all, it was the same vote as before! But there was a catch. This time, in the middle of all the confusion, Senator Frank Wagner (R-7, Virginia Beach) was outside the chamber and Senator Blevins voted in favor of the amendment. Senate rules declare that a vote can only be reconsidered once; therefore this vote was final. Complete and utter bewilderment was evident in the chamber. This clearly had not been the expected outcome. Moments after the vote on HB 1900, Senator Watkins made a motion to pass by SB 921 for the day (killing it), making HB 1900, in its amended state, the only bill that remained.
The Family Foundation and The Catholic Conference returned to the doors of the chamber to thank the senators as they left. Again and again as we spoke to the senators, we heard the same thing: "We did not have the votes. This was a miracle. That was God at work." So at the end of the day, the earthly battle consisted of procedural gymnastics, strategizing and scheming, and erroneous voting, but none of that mattered. God had designed His victory and He would not be averted. The passage of HB 1900 was an incredible victory for both life and for conscience. As one legislator accurately stated, "I truly believe that this amendment will save more lives than perhaps anything we’ve ever done."
While we thanked all 75 legislators who voted for the amendment (as well as Governor McDonnell and Lt. Governor Bolling) yesterday, as well as our partner organizations,The Family Foundation would like to specifically single out Delegate Todd Gilbert and Senators Dick Black, Jeff McWaters, and Tom Garrett for their eloquent and cogent defense of life. It is legislators like them who add courage to their votes on paper by standing in the gap and speaking for the vulnerable in times when it would be easier to remain silent. The Family Foundation takes its hat off to these exemplary legislators. Please e-mail these four legislators (addresses below) and thank them for their courageous defense of life and conscience:
Delegate Todd Gilbert: DelTGilbert@house.virginia.gov
Senator Dick Black: District13@senate.virginia.gov
Senator Jeff McWaters: District08@senate.virginia.gov
Senator Tom Garrett: District22@senate.virginia.gov