Abortion


It went this way, on the afternoon of March 6, when the House of Representatives convened at 1:30. The deal was done provided everyone was in their seat. Most everyone seemed to be.

First there was the opening prayer, which some thought a little long, but there were no complaints. Then the Pledge of Allegiance, which takes as long as it takes. Then Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) announced that a former member of the House, Bob “Sody” Arnold of Arkadelphia, had stopped by and, in keeping with custom, had been granted the privilege of the floor. The tip-o’-the-hat to Arnold took about 30 seconds.

Then the introduction of some other guests, which required about a minute.

Now the Speaker recognized Rep. David Meeks (R. - Conway), who came to the podium in behalf of House Resolution 1016. In the course of a legislative session there are a lot of resolutions praising this or that organization or individual, and they always are approved unanimously, a courtesy among lawmakers. Meeks’s 1016 honored the Sugar Bears, the women’s volleyball team of the University of Central Arkansas for “an outstanding season.” The ceremony took about five, maybe six minutes.

Then turned the House to the day’s other business. As did HR1016, the first item of substantive legislation involved women, and it was presented to the chamber by a woman, Rep. Ann Clemmer (R-Benton). It was Senate Bill 134. The most radical anti-abortion legislation to be enacted by any state legislature in the nation, it would effectively ban the procedure at the approximate 12 week mark, a far greater abbreviation of the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill — for the moment, it was still only a bill — is the handiwork of State Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow), who steered it through his side of the Capitol by a lopsided margin enabled by the 2012 elections, which gave the GOP, for the first time in almost 150 years, a majority of the 35-member Senate.

Rapert is a clergyman and financial advisor. A professor of government at UALR, Clemmer teaches government, including the federal supremacy clause.

Clemmer had handled HB134 in the House, where it sailed through on a vote proportionate to the Senate’s; hers, too, was a chamber newly in Republican hands, albeit a majority — one member — far less commanding. The bill had been speeded along in the House by 18 Democrats who voted “aye.” Governor Beebe, however, had vetoed HB134, as he had “disapproved” a similar bill that had originated in the House, a bill that forbade abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy; both bills, Mr. Beebe said, were unconstitutional under prevailing judicial doctrine. Both houses had overturned the Governor’s veto on the 20-week bill, and the Senate had overridden his veto of Rapert’s 12-week legislation, which at this hour was before the House.

The outcome, really, was foreordained. It takes but a simple majority to overturn a veto, the Republicans have 51 members — simple. Even with Rep. Denny Altes of Fort Smith absent (he was paired with an absent Democrat, and their two votes would be counted) there would be enough Democratic support to take the override over the top. None other than the House Democratic leader, Rep. Greg Leding of Fayetteville, had acknowledged as much the day before. His only question this day was how many of his caucus would return to the fold, as it were; and, after all, under the circumstances, did it really matter?

Clemmer spoke for the override, and took about two minutes. Then Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, the majority leader, taking about as long. When Carter asked if anyone would speak to sustain the veto, the chamber was silent. Carter asked again; again, silence. He called for the vote. The yeas were 56, a majority with five to spare. (A glitch failed to record one Republican vote). At that moment SB134 ceased to be a bill and became law, awaiting only the assignment of its number in the 2013 Acts of Arkansas. It also ceased being a political question and became a legal issue, awaiting only the plaintiff its opponents soon will identify.

Leding surveyed the tally. Six Democrats had supported the override. Dickinson of Newport, who had voted against the bill. Wilkins of Pine Bluff, who had previously voted “Present.” Copenhaver of Jonesboro, Ratliff of Imboden and Wilkins of Bono had voted for the bill, then sided with the administration on the override. So, too, Thompson of Morrilton, and Hillman of Almyra. And Lampkin of Monticello.

It was better than Leding had anticipated.

And it was over, all of it, in less time than it took to celebrate the Sugar Bears.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.