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Lawmakers Play 'Chicken' over Abortion Bill
By Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
May 14, 2001
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum holds the massive, 600-some page health and human services bill. He says he's reading the entire bill before sending it to Gov. Ventura.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The stalemate over an abortion waiting period continues at the Capitol. A massive health and human services spending bill that contains the controversial provision is languishing on Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum's desk, delaying an almost-certain gubernatorial veto. Both sides in the abortion debate are accusing each other of playing politics.

THE POLITICAL GAMES BEGAN LAST FRIDAY, when Senate DFL leaders took the highly unusual step of ratifying a House health and human services bill that didn't match up with the Senate version on key issues. The plan was to avoid a conference committee, get the bill to Gov. Ventura quickly, and give lawmakers time to salvage the bill once he vetoes it.

Ventura has promised to veto the $6.3 billion bill funding nursing homes, welfare, services for the disabled and other programs, because it contains a 24-hour abortion waiting period. Following the Senate's unusual maneuver, House Republican leaders responded with a move of their own. Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says he's taking his time reading the nearly 700-page bill before signing it and sending it to the governor.

"The Senate usually doesn't just go ahead and accept the House language; that's a pretty unique action. Because of that unique action, I thought it'd be pretty important to go through the bill and make sure there's not something in there that I didn't see in there," Sviggum says.

Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, says House Speaker Steve Sviggum is "playing politics" with a bill funding nursing homes, welfare and services for the disabled.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Holding a dog-eared copy of the bill, Sviggum said he's about halfway through reading it. He says it could take anywhere from an hour and a half to a week and a half.

House Democrats held a news conference outside the governor's office to call on Sviggum to sign the bill, and urge Ventura to veto it. Minneapolis DFLer Jim Davnie says abortion opponents are playing games with an important bill.

"I regret this unprecedented abuse of the legislative process to push forward an extremist agenda at the expense of thousands of Minnesotans who rely on the funding in this bill," Davnie said.

DFLers say time is running out for an agreement on the sweeping spending bill. Sviggum says he's simply using the same tactic Senate DFL leaders have used for years: running out the clock to their advantage. He says the longer he stalls, the more the pressure builds for Ventura to sign the bill.

"It would give the governor more chance to look at it, it would give the governor an opportunity to say, 'You know, I want to fund nursing homes, I want to fund developmentally-disabled care centers, I want to do that, I don't want to veto that,'" Sviggum said.

Sviggum says the waiting period, which requires women to review certain information 24 hours before having an abortion, is a reasonable provision that a majority of House and Senate members support. Supporters of legalized abortion say it inserts government between a woman and her doctor.
House Speaker Steve Sviggum, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and John Wodele, spokesman for Gov. Ventura joined MPR's Gary Eichten on Midday on May 15, 2001, to discuss the abortion provision and other items at the Legislature. Listen to the broadcast.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says it doesn't belong in a major spending bill, and Sviggum's maneuver could shut down on July 1st state agencies that provide health and human services.

"I think that's unconscionable that one person would be willing to risk all of that and the very meaningful changes and appropriations that are in those bills all because of abortion language that is controversial and could be very well be dealt with separately," Moe said.

Sviggum points out that the Senate used a similar tactic four years ago, and sat on a bill raising the speed limit for 26 days. With only one week left before the Legislature must adjourn, the standoff increases the prospects that a special session may become necessary.