LITTLE ROCK — Frayed emotions at the Capitol last week over the polarizing topic of abortion may have reflected not only the divisiveness of the issue but also the new political dynamic, particularly in the House, where Republicans hold the barest of majorities.
The tension was apparent on Tuesday morning, when a bill to ban most abortions at 12 weeks came up for a vote in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, ruled that Senate Bill 134 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, passed on a voice vote and refused to allow a roll-call vote that several members requested.
The panel’s vice chairman, Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, who voted against the bill, objected and accused Burris of abusing his power. That afternoon, House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, huddled privately with members of the panel, then sent the bill back to committee for a roll-call vote. It passed, 11-5.
The measure passed Thursday in the House in a 68-20 vote and is now awaiting Senate action to concur in a House amendment.
Burris said he did not allow a roll-call vote because "by my calculations of the committee and knowledge of how they felt, and hearing the vote, I thought the votes were there" to pass the bill.
But Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who voted against the bill, said opponents knew "that bill was defeated in the morning session. We know it did not have the votes."
Leding, the House minority leader, said the bill "gained new life" in the few hours that passed between the morning meeting and the afternoon meeting. Some members may have decided they did not want to be on record voting against the bill, he said.
He called the episode "an embarrassment."
"I think it put the entire committee process and the body in a bad light," Leding said, though he praised Carter for sending the bill back to committee.
Murdock said he had a good relationship with Burris but believed he "made a poor decision as chairman."
Should a committee chairman ignore a request for a roll-call vote because he believes a bill has passed? Burris said he was not making that claim, but he said other factors were involved, including a press conference on human trafficking that was about to start and that people in the room wanted to attend.
He also admitted, "It was emotional and I was probably a little geared up, like everybody else."
Another dust-up occurred in the House last week when Democrats defeated an attempt by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, to amend one of his own bills, something that is usually permitted as a courtesy. The bill, which would set a cap on annual growth in state spending, is strongly opposed by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat.
The next day, Burris and Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, objected when three Democrats tried to amend their own bills using a procedure that does not require a House vote.
Burris admitted the objections were "tit for tat."
Murdock said he believes emotions have been running high partly because of the issues at stake but partly as a result of "this new situation that we’re under."
Republicans hold majorities in the House and Senate for the first time since the end of the Civil War, but they barely outnumber Democrats in the House with 51 seats in the 100-member body.
"When these numbers are like they are and things are as close as they are and things are as emotional sometimes as they are, there’s no clear advantage," Murdock said. "You see some weird things happen."