Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday by a 50-45 party-line vote blocked an effort by Democrats to force a vote on a resolution seeking to enshrine abortion rights in the Virginia Constitution.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, last week had filed a rules change that would have allowed bringing a proposed constitutional amendment protecting access to abortion in Virginia to the House floor after a Republican-led House panel had already defeated the measure last week.
The effort to force a floor vote was a strategic move by Democrats to get their colleagues from across the aisle on the record in an election year when all 140 seats of the legislature are on the ballot. House Republicans had decided to not hear any abortion-related legislation after a Senate committee last month rejected a proposal by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, seeking to ban most abortions after 15 weeks.
Newman’s bill was backed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who had made restricting access to abortion a key priority for this year’s legislative session after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June to send abortion back to the states.
Simon said in an interview last week that he decided to push for the rules change as a means to put pressure on Republicans who “don’t want to have their members have to pick up a politically difficult vote” on abortion during an election year.
But on Thursday, Republicans voted down this effort, arguing that it would set a new precedent for any time one party wants to bring legislation that had already failed on committee level to the floor for a vote.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Del. Robert Orrock, R-Spotsylvania County, said. “If we start down this road, then the rules become subject to whatever issue du jour might be expedient for one party or the other.”
Current practice is that the House of Delegates adopts the rules every two years, “and from my experience it’s always been in consultation with the minority party,” Orrock said. “They were at least made aware of those before the rules changes were adopted.”
Youngkin has been working with Republican legislators to draft an abortion bill that had a chance of passing a divided legislature after Roe v. Wade fell. But Senate Democrats, who hold a 22-18 majority, made clear at the beginning of the 2023 General Assembly session in January that any restriction to abortion would be a nonstarter.
Republicans still hoped that Democrats would be willing to compromise on Newman’s 15-weeks bill. But after the proposal was defeated by a Senate subcommittee last month, along with a slate of similar GOP measures, House Republicans decided to not take up any abortion-related legislation this year, including a 15-weeks bill sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, and a more far-reaching measure sponsored by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County.
House Republicans also killed a resolution for a constitutional amendment sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, that was identical to the Senate version.
Speaking in favor of allowing a vote on the latter Thursday, Herring said that the constitutional amendment was filed because of Youngkin’s actions indicating that he would push for legislation to restrict access to abortion in Virginia after the Supreme Court decision.
“This constitutional amendment was vetted by constitutional experts, and when it was drafted we asked, what can we do to protect the laws that are in place?” Herring said on the House floor.
Under current law, abortions are legal in the commonwealth in the first and second trimesters. They are only legal in the third trimester if continuing the pregnancy “is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
Herring asked lawmakers to reject the Republican vote to pass by the proposed rules change.
“I say, Mr. Speaker, we must put it to the voters,” she said. “I think it’s appropriate that we have this debate, I appreciate this debate, and I’ve listened to the other side and their point of view. But we need to continue the discussion, and we need to vote on the resolution.”
Simon, who filed the rules change that would have forced a vote on the amendment, on Thursday called it “alarming” to see Republican lawmakers “refuse to allow a vote” on protecting women’s reproductive rights.
“By defeating my resolution, they are aligning themselves with the most radical faction of their party, which seeks to impose harsh restrictions on abortion and even criminalize miscarriages,” Simon said. “This was a critical moment for Virginians to see where their representatives stand on this important issue. Virginians are watching closely, and their decision will have consequences for years to come.”