- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

RICHMOND — The rhetoric at times was forceful, but the debate remained largely the same. And by the end of the session, legislators had rejected the most far-reaching restrictions on abortion and emergency contraception sought by conservatives in years.

As in past years, the major stumbling block for conservative social bills was the Senate Education and Health Committee.

The panel killed legislation seeking to allow anesthesia for fetuses before abortions and impose new restrictions on abortion clinics and distribution of emergency contraception after the bills were passed by the House of Delegates — some by wide margins.

Eight Republicans and seven Democrats serve on the committee, but two Republicans — Sens. Russell Potts and Frederick Quayle — routinely vote with the Democrats on social issues.

Conservatives complained Saturday that the committee acted against the majority opinion of those in the Senate, which one member blamed on the Senate Republican leadership that decides committee assignments.

“What’s disappointing is our Republican majority didn’t act to more appropriately adjust committee representation,” said Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax County Republican.

Added Delegate Richard Black, Loudoun Republican, “The Senate just came off an election year. … I think you’ll find them at their most liberal immediately after an election. I think they realize that people have short memories.”

Mr. Black had sponsored the proposal to allow women to anesthetize their fetuses before undergoing second- or third-trimester abortions, a move that opponents said goes against mainstream medical opinion.

He said Virginians are becoming more amenable to paring down abortion rights, and he predicted his bill and another that would hold abortion clinics to the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers would pass after Senate leadership changes.

“The younger members [in the Senate] are considerably more conservative,” Mr. Black said.

Mr. Cuccinelli said he already has the votes on the Senate floor to pass both abortion bills, as well as legislation preventing distribution of the “morning-after” birth-control pill on college campuses.

But Mr. Potts, the Education and Health Committee chairman, said he “totally repudiates” this claim and argued that the Republican Party is moving in the other direction. He accused groups such as the Family Foundation of turning the GOP into an “extremist, off-the-wall, single-issue party.”

“If they bring back those same bills next year, they’re going to lose next year,” said Mr. Potts, Winchester Republican. “We’re going to do our [best] to drive the Republican Party where it ought to be driven, and that’s in the middle of the road.”

The division among Republicans was at its most pronounced this year over social bills as well as the key issue of the session — competing budgets that differed greatly in proposals to increase taxes and reduce spending.

Mr. Cuccinelli blamed the discord on the fact that many social bills did not fare so well. He said a forceful Republican agenda last year led to the passage of legislation requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions and prohibiting certain late-term abortions.

“We announced an agenda we were going to pursue, and we didn’t have a single defection,” he said. “We need to do more of that.”

One social issue most Republicans agreed on this year was homosexual “marriage.” The House and Senate passed measures by veto-proof margins that would prohibit Virginia from recognizing same-sex civil unions performed in other states and would urge Congress to propose a constitutional amendment on the sanctity of marriage.

Again, the proposals faced the most strident opposition in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County said Republicans were seeking to make Virginia as “inhospitable” as possible for homosexuals.

The legislature’s only openly homosexual member, Delegate Adam Ebbin, Arlington Democrat, also accused the GOP of driving the anti-homosexual agenda.

“There’s no reason that people should want to take away … hospital visitation, advanced medical directives or child-custody arrangements between two adults who are serving as a child’s parents,” Mr. Ebbin said.

Delegate Robert Marshall, Prince William Republican, said the civil-union ban was needed to protect Virginia’s Affirmation of Marriage Act from challenges in the courts.

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