At Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Rhode Island Senate, Senator Bridget Valverde (District 35, North Kingstown, Narragansett) walked to the lectern and told the Senate President that she wanted to object to his decision to send S0267, a bill dealing with Medicaid and abortion, to the Senate Judiciary Committee instead of to the Senate Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee where it belongs.
Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (Democrat, District 1, Providence), perhaps caught off guard by Senator Valverde, rose to ask that the motion be held from discussion until after various resolutions were acted on and read. Senator Valverde agreed.
25 minutes later, after all the resolutions had been acted on, Senator Valverde returned to the lectern and restated her objection to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio‘s (Democrat, District 4, Providence) decision to place S0267 in Judiciary, a committee that deals mostly with crime and punishment, rather than in HHS, which routinely deals with health care issues and Medicaid. It was a very reasonable objection. Abortion is healthcare, after all, and there is a precedent.
To understand what happened next, you have to understand that the Senate President, Majority Whip and the Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick) are all anti-choice Democrats who occupy the three highest leadership positions in the Rhode Island Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee has for decades been carefully stacked with anti-choice legislators to ensure that no legislation that might make abortion easier and safer to access can ever pass.
This system worked for a long time, but two years ago a tremendous wave of pro-choice advocates bombarded the General Assembly in order to codify Roe v Wade into Rhode Island State Law. So great was this wave of woman-led advocacy that the Rhode Island House of Representatives, also traditionally anti-choice, quickly caved and passed the Reproductive Privacy Act. But over in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the system was working exactly as it was designed to, and the abortion rights bill was stuck on one vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Stephen Archambault, who had run as pro-choice, apparently changed his mind and was now doing everything in his power to block the bill, even going so far as to publicly insult the bill’s sponsor, Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence).
Senate leadership, Ruggerio, McCaffrey and Goodwin, would not vote in favor of the bill themselves, but had promised that they would not block the bill from coming to the Senate floor for passage. Ultimately, the decision was made to move the bill from Senate Judiciary to the Senate HHS Committee, where the bill had no trouble passing. Days later Governor Gina Raimondo signed the bill, codifying Roe v Wade into state law.
Senator Valverde’s bill, S0267, would “provide for abortion coverage in the Medicaid program and repeal the abortion coverage exclusion for state employee insurance plans.” It currently has 21 sponsors in the Senate, more than enough to pass the bill were it to come to the Senate floor. The bill is beautifully written as well, beginning with five points:
- In enacting the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019, the general assembly recognized the importance of protecting a person’s right to reproductive health care. However, exercising that right can be illusory for people of limited financial means.
- Funding restrictions on abortion coverage interfere with an individual’s personal decision-making, with their health and well-being, and with their constitutionally protected right to a safe and legal medical procedure.
- Restrictions on abortion coverage have a disproportionate impact on low-income residents, immigrants, people of color, and young people who are already disadvantaged in their access to the resources, information, and services necessary to prevent an unintended pregnancy or to carry a health pregnancy to term.
- Numerous other states provide abortion coverage in their Medicaid programs and in their state employee insurance plans.
- The purpose of this legislation is to promote equity in access to reproductive health care.
Anti-choice Senator Louis DiPalma (Democrat, District 12, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton) rose to object to the bill being reassigned. “Over the last ten years, with the exception of two bills, and one of those bills was on license plates, all bills associated with abortion have been in the judiciary committee,” said DiPalma.
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Senate President Ruggerio immediately called for a vote, but anti-choice Senator Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester) rose to claim, erroneously, that the rules would not allow Valverde’s objection.
“That is not true,” said Senator Valverde.
Senate President Ruggerio agreed and corrected Senator de la Cruz, who sat down.
Pro-choice Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), whose recognition light had not been acknowledged by the Senate President, was forced to interrupt in order to be heard. A clearly annoyed Senate President tried to shut Senator Bell down, saying that the motion was a “simple objection.”
Senator Bell maintained that the objection was in fact a debatable motion. Senate President Ruggerio asked Senator Bell to cite the section of Mason’s Manual where it is stated that the objection is debatable.
Anti-choice Senator Frank Lombardi (Democrat, District 26, Cranston), who once chaired the Senate Rules Committee, didn’t bother with a microphone, but yelled from the Senate floor. “Pursuant to the rules there’s been an objection filed by a sitting Senator,” said Senator Lombardi. “The only relief you can have is the presiding officer must put it to a vote.”
“But there should be debate on this vote,” said Senator Valverde.
“It’s not debatable,” declared Senate President Ruggerio.
“It is, under Mason’s Rules, a debatable motion,” countered Senator Bell. “If we want to start reinventing what’s debatable or not, as we’ve done before here, that’s a problematic…”
“That’s a simple vote Senator,” interrupted Senate President Ruggerio, who then called the vote.
Leaving the lectern, Senator Valverde implored her fellow senators to “Vote yes, please.”
The objection failed on a vote of 15-22.
The final vote was disappointing because of the number of putatively “pro-choice” Senators voted to keep the bill in the Judiciary Committee, where it has a more difficult path to passage than it would have faced in HHS.
Senators Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown), Cynthia Armour Coyne (Democrat, District 32, Barrington), Valerie Lawson (Democrat, District 14, East Providence, Pawtucket), Hanna Gallo (Democrat, District 27, Cranston), Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence) and Ryan Pearson (Democrat, District 19, Cumberland) all voted against Senator Valverde’s objection.
And it can’t be just because committee chairs and others holding titled positions in the Senate are afraid of retribution from leadership. Senators Sandra Cano (Democrat, District 8, Pawtucket), Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston) and Susan Sosnowski (Democrat, District 37, Block Island, South Kingstown) voted in favor of Senator Valverde’s objection, and all chair important, high-profile committees.
Senators Euer, Lawson, Pearson and Coyne are all currently endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Had they voted in favor of Senator Valverde’s objection, the bill would have now be in the HHS Committee – where it belongs.