The tense final vote on the anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” was tinged with emotion and suspense – and preceded by intense behind-the-scenes jockeying to wrangle enough votes to get the sweeping new restrictions to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.
Throughout the day, vulnerable Republicans were spotted in deep conversations over the measure, and its chief sponsor conceded that some were so “terrified” that they could endanger the vote.
House Speaker David Ralston raised the suspense by delaying the vote for three days before calling it shortly after a lunch break on Friday. Asked earlier in the day its chances of coming up, he said “stay tuned.”
Kemp put his political capital on the line with an unequivocal endorsement, and he sent deputies to help whip the votes. He’s set to sign it after the legislative session ends, perhaps in mid-April.
When the final votes were tallied, six state lawmakers crossed party lines to vote on the measure, which eked through the House by a 92-78 vote. It needed 91 votes to succeed. The Senate voted last week strictly on party lines to pass the measure.
State Rep. Ed Setzler and other supporters had little room to spare: The vote earlier this month was 93-73. And the longer the wait, the more time for opponents to rally against it.
Setzler said in an interview that he initially had closer to 100 supporters, but several were absent Friday.
“There were very, very aggressive attacks by our political opponents trying to politicize this, trying to twist the issue,” said Setzler, blaming Democratic “vitriol” for the narrow vote.
Just like earlier this month, a single Democrat defied his party to support the measure: State Rep. Mack Jackson, a pastor from Sandersville. Democratic leaders have already vowed to back a primary challenge next year to oust him from office.
“I will call out the members of our party who say they are for us, and voted for this bill and pushed it over the top,” said state Rep. Erica Thomas of Austell. “This is a mess.”
Five Republicans voted against the measure, including two who also opposed it earlier this month: State Reps. Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs and Butch Parrish of Swainsboro.
Joining them were two Republicans who were absent during the last vote. State Rep. Sharon Cooper, who chairs the House Health Committee that initially approved the bill, and state Rep. Chuck Martin of Alpharetta.
In an interview, Martin said he’s a staunch opponent of abortion rights and pointed to his support for past restrictions. But he said he voted against the latest measure because it would “criminalize the practice of medicine.”
“I’m pro-life and I’m going to go home with my head up pro-life,” he said. “This bill gives me concerns that even proponents say it’s more likely than not to be unconstitutional and may not ever be enforced. That gives me pause to the pro-life cause.”
And one GOP lawmaker, state Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, voted for the measure earlier this month but against it on Friday. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Eight other lawmakers were excused: Republicans Dave Belton of Buckhead, Gerald Greene of Cuthbert, Brett Harrell of Snellville, Jeff Jones of Brunswick, Todd Jones of Cumming, Dave Rutledge of McDonough and Ron Stephens of Savannah. Democrat Mickey Stephens of Savannah was also absent.
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