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Johnson's post tips balance toward abortion opponents
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Sen. Dean Johnson's appointment as DFL majority leader gives abortion opponents confidence they'll be able to push through more abortion restrictions. Johnson is opposed to abortion, but says he will respect the legislative process. (MPR file photo)
For the first time in at least a generation, the governor, the House leadership, and now the Senate leadership all publicly favor restrictions on abortion access. The selection Tuesday of Willmar DFLer Dean Johnson as Senate majority leader is being greeted enthusiastically by abortion opponents. But supporters of legal abortion say they're confident Johnson will remain fair and impartial during upcoming debates.

St. Paul, Minn. — The anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life scored one of their biggest victories when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe had used his influence for years to block such legislation, despite a growing tilt in the Senate in favor of it. But the law finally passed last year despite the opposition of Moe's replacement, John Hottinger of St. Peter.

Now, with Hottinger out and Dean Johnson in, MCCL Executive Director Scott Fischbach says he believes his group only adds to its list of friends in high places.

"That is going to be the biggest benefit. He can control which bills will come up and which ones won't," says Fishbach. "That's why we look forward to working with him and are eager to work with him on getting those pro-life bills on the Senate floor."

He'll do like he's done with everything else. Within a year, he'll be pro-choice. He's flipped on everything that he's ever stood for.
- Republican Senate leader Dick Day, on his DFL counterpart Dean Johnson

After the passage of the abortion waiting period, Fischbach says abortion opponents will now turn their attention to family planning dollars that are often channeled to groups that offer or refer women for abortion services. Fischbach says he'd like to see those public dollars denied to organizations connected to abortion providers. And he says he hopes Johnson will help shepherd those proposals through the Senate.

Johnson says he has taken no personal position on the debate over family planning dollars. He says he can't guarantee that they'll ever emerge from the committee process for a full vote in the Senate.

"I can't venture what will happen with family planning. I do not know," Johnson says. "But it deserves to have a hearing, in my opinion. Can I force a committee chair to hold a hearing? No."

Johnson also says he's adamantly opposed to the parliamentary maneuvers that short-circuited the normal committee route in last year's abortion debate. In that case, abortion opponents in the House amended the waiting period language to a bill that repealed obsolete circus laws. When it arrived back in the Senate, members were given the choice of voting for or against, but were not allowed to offer amendments.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, says she's confident that Johnson will discourage that sort of behavior. Anderson, who both supports abortion access and voted for Johnson as majority leader, says she's confident that Johnson's personal opposition to abortion won't cloud the Senate debate.

"When you combine that with a respect for the committee process and committee chairs, and a respect for the rules and procedures of the Senate, we are going to be, as a caucus, deciding what issues we consider. And the MCCL is not going to be running this place," says Anderson.

But abortion opponents say "respect for the committee process" is often just a cover to bottle up controversial topics in committee, effectively choking them behind the scenes. They say they expect Johnson to discourage those parliamentary tactics and allow all bills to advance to the full Senate floor for a fair vote.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, however, says he's not sure he'll trust Johnson to do that. Day, who opposes abortion, replaced Johnson as the chamber's lead Republican in 1999. The next year, Johnson departed for the DFL Party. Day says Johnson is a political chameleon.

"He'll do like he's done with everything else. Within a year, he'll be pro-choice," Day says of Johnson. "He's flipped on everything that he's ever stood for, so trust me. In due time, he'll get himself in trouble over that issue."

Which only demonstrates that neither side of the issue is quite comfortable with the change in Senate leadership. Tim Stanley is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota. He says he expects Johnson to be fair and considerate -- but he says that might not be enough to block anti-abortion legislation.

"If you're asking me whether I would prefer to have an ardent supporter of abortion rights sitting in the position of Senate majority leader -- absolutely, positively," says Stanley. "I would also rather have a majority in that body that could stop all anti-choice legislation. But I don't have that right now."

Stanley says the abortion issue this session will provide a window toward the 2004 elections, during which all members of the House are up for re-election. All sides of the issue will be watching closely.

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