Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: The Ohio Senate’s leader said Thursday that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat was a key factor in his decision to block a vote on stringent abortion restrictions.
GOP Senate President Tom Niehaus told reporters a Romney victory was a condition he had set with proponents for advancing the so-called “heartbeat bill.” The legislation proposed banning most abortions at the first detectable fetal heartbeat, as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
Niehaus announced earlier this week that he would not schedule a vote on the bill. Backers planned a legislative maneuver to force a vote, but Niehaus assisted a procedural move Thursday that put a stop to that effort.
Niehaus said a Romney win over Democratic President Barack Obama would have increased the likelihood of a lineup of new U.S. Supreme Court appointees that would be favorable to a legal challenge to the heartbeat measure.
Backers had hoped the legislation’s passage would spark a legal challenge that could lead to overturning the high court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion up until viability, which is closer to 22 weeks after conception.
Ohio anti-abortion activists were fiercely divided over the bill, with some fearing a court challenge could undo other abortion restrictions already in place.
“The risk became, do you send a bill to the U.S. Supreme Court that has the potential to undermine all of the good work that the right-to-life community has done over the previous decades?” Niehaus said. “Could it have undone Roe v. Wade? I don’t know the answer to that question. That appeared to me to be an extreme risk to take, and I was not willing to take that risk.”
The powerful Senate Rules committee met Thursday — minus two Republican pro-heartbeat members that Niehaus stripped of their committee appointments Wednesday night — and shut down an effort by the bill’s backers to force a vote on the legislation. The panel voted unanimously to re-refer the bill to the Rules committee, a move that prevented it from being challenged for 30 days. That’s more time than remains in the legislative session.
Niehaus, a New Richmond Republican departing at year’s end due to term limits, said he made the move to protect his members from unfair attacks.
“It’s clear that this bill saw some of the most intense lobbying efforts in recent memory — and that’s fine: I’m all for people advocating for their position, and being passionate about their position,” he said. “But threatening, in my opinion, goes over the line. And we saw tactics that I did not appreciate, and my members did not appreciate. And for a small faction of the pro-life community to target the most pro-life group of senators in recent memory was to me outrageous.”
Members he removed from the committee ahead of Thursday’s vote were fellow Republicans Keith Faber and Shannon Jones. Faber was elected Wednesday as the next Senate president. Both he and Jones had been strong supporters of the heartbeat measure, though Faber indicated publicly he would not defy Niehaus’ wishes on the bill.
Ohio House Health Chairman Lynn Wachtmann, a key proponent of the bill, had worked over the summer to strike a compromise within Ohio’s anti-abortion community.
Wachtmann said he succeeded in doing that and Niehaus went back on his word by rejecting the compromise. The agreement included a complete statewide abortion ban with narrow exceptions for rape and incest.
Asked Wednesday if Niehaus had suggested he would move the bill once the compromise was presented, Wachtmann said, “It was more than a suggestion.”
Niehaus said he broke no such promise, because he told proponents moving the bill would hinge on a Romney victory. He also said significant changes had been suggested to the bill that wouldn’t have adequate time to be aired.