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Will abortion rights overtake the Senate coalition?

The Reproductive Parity Act has passed the House. Now comes the real test.
The state Capitol in Olympia

The state Capitol in Olympia jodastephen (Stephen Colebourne)/Flickr (CC)

The Democrat-dominated Washington House passed the Reproductive Parity Act Friday, setting up a test of control in the Senate. The Act would require health plans that cover maternity care to also cover abortions. Republicans in both chambers mostly oppose it. 

The House passed the bill 53-43 along mostly party lines. Democrats framed the bill as freedom of choice for women. Republicans framed the debate as freedom of choice for employers and insurance carriers. 

The chamber voted 96-0 to add a Republican amendment to allow insurance carriers to opt out of providing abortion coverage for reasons of conscience. But Republicans were unsuccessful in blocking a Democratic amendment — approved 54-42 — to order insurance companies to notify policy holders in writing that they won't fund abortions for reasons of conscience, and to provide information to those policy holders on how to obtain abortion coverage elsewhere.

"This bill is about everyone's conscience," said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. 

Not everyone agreed. Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, countered: "I want the choice to align with a carrier that has my core values." 

"I suggest this is a repugnant burden to place on employers. ... Pass this bill and we will make the same mistake as our forefathers made 300 years ago when they jailed Quakers when exercising their consciences," said Rep. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County.

"These are intelligent women. They don't want a bureaucrat in an insurance company ... to tell them how to make decisions about their bodies and their families," said Rep Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness. 

Two centrists (Sens. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and Steve Litzow, R- Mercer Island) introduced a companion bill in the Senate, which died when the Senate's Health Care Committee chairwoman, Randi Becker, R. Eatonville, refused to schedule a hearing or committee vote on that bill.

On Wednesday, Sen. Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat and the socially moderate chairman of the alliance that controls the Senate, said that Becker has agreed to hold a hearing on the House bill when it reaches the Senate. However, its passage there looks unlikely. Alliance leaders have frequently said that committee chairpersons control what happens in their committees, and Becker opposes this bill. Further, Republicans have the majority of votes in that committee, which decides whether to pass it on to the full Senate floor.

There is one last chance for the bill. The full Senate can vote to revive a bill on the floor if it dies in committee. If Litzow keeps his support of the bill, that would give Senate supporters a one-vote majority, assuming the 24 minority caucus Democrats stay united.

Gov. Jay Inslee supports the bill: "The Senate should not shut the door of democracy when it comes to women's health care." 

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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