DENVER — The abortion issue has long been a winner for Colorado Democrats, a wedge used to appeal to women swing voters worried that Republicans might threaten their reproductive rights.
But it is possible to overplay a winning hand, and Senate Democrats proved it this week.
Their proposal, the “Reproductive Health Freedom Act,” ostensibly sought to prevent any future challenges to abortion rights in the state — to do something impossible — in an effort to protect Colorado women from the kind of restrictive laws that have passed in other states: mandatory ultrasound requirements and impossible-to-meet clinic requirements.
Once Denver’s Archbishop and Republicans took note of it, Senate Bill 175 was exposed as an policy idea hatched in fantasyland, a quixotic effort to legislate not just into the future but forever and a blatant ploy to appeal to women at the end of this election-year legislative session.
Initially set to be debated Tuesday, the bill was put off because one Democratic lawmaker went home sick, leaving Democrats without the 18 votes needed to advance the bill.
On Wednesday night, with all 18 Democrats in the chamber, the bill was postponed indefinitely — killed, in a word — by the sponsor, who avoided what would have been a lengthy floor debate and blamed the decision on Republicans promising to filibuster the measure and bog down the Senate calendar.
— Andy Kerr (@SenAndyKerr) April 17, 2014
Republicans in the Senate vehemently deny that they planned to filibuster or that any conversations took place.
“They’re looking for a scapegoat,” one said.
Asked whether Rs would filibuster abortion bill, @SenBillCadman: "That's ridiculous. What they ran into was a firestorm of public dessent."
— Kristen Nichols (@kristenwnichols) April 17, 2014
Three hours after the move to kill S.B. 175, Senate President Morgan Carroll issued a statement, echoing Kerr’s frustration with Republicans and putting the bill in the context of the state’s ongoing personhood debate.
“This session started with a Republican sponsored bill on personhood – an initiative defeated three times by voters,” Carroll said. “We were hopeful that the Republicans would come on board with a proposal that would ensure all women are able to make private and personal reproductive health decisions with freedom from government interference. But we are disappointed that we were unable to get bi-partisan support to acknowledge and uphold the values of the majority of Coloradans.
“With 21 days left in the legislative session and 269 bills still pending, having a GOP filibuster would bring D.C. style dysfunction to Colorado,” she continued. “We have made our point, and in the interest of getting the remaining work done on education, jobs, higher education affordability and childcare, we laid the bill over.”
Democrats also had to realize that politically this effort had backfired, riling up conservatives across the state at the end of a session that has been the opposite of last year’s, a session in which hardly any bill debated inside the Capitol drew much of a reaction outside the building.
That was just what Democrats wanted, heading into the fall campaign season.
While the bill lit a fire with some pro-life conservatives, it may have galvanized progressives too, allowing Kerr and Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-BlackHawk, who both face tough reelection challenges that could determine which party controls the chamber next year, a chance to underline their commitment to a woman’s right to choose.
Kerr can rightly claim public support for pro-choice policies in a state that has twice rejected personhood measures by sweeping margins.
But that, too, makes the Democrats’ decision to push this bill a bit of a head-scratcher: abortion rights are not being threatened in Colorado, nor are they likely to be successfully rolled back any time soon.
The legislation is dead, but the messaging war is just underway.
“We’d like to thank our bill sponsors, Sen Kerr and Sen Nicholson, for advocating for the rights of Colorado women to make their own private, personal medical decisions without government interference,” said Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, who blamed Republicans for distorting what she believes was a solid bill.
“We’re disappointed that a bill that protected the privacy rights of Coloradans and reflected the will of Colorado voters was so distorted and politicized by the opponents. We believe mainstream Colorado values can and should be reflected in our laws, which is what SB 175 did.”