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Kessler plays hardball on fetal pain bill

Senate President Jeff Kessler has upped the ante significantly in the ongoing debate over whether lawmakers should return to Charleston to take up a controversial bill banning abortions after 20 weeks except in medical emergencies.

During an appearance on Metronews Talkline Tuesday, the Marshall County Democrat said Governor Tomblin should call a special session to address the fetal pain bill.

“We have a pro-life majority in leadership and I think we can get this issue addressed and put it behind us and move on to other topics that also need to be addressed,” Kessler said.

Kessler’s tack puts the issue back before Tomblin and House Speaker Tim Miley.  Tomblin vetoed the fetal pain bill earlier this year, citing constitutional questions and concerns expressed by doctors.  Miley and a majority of House Democrats supported the bill, but he has argued against returning to the capital to reconsider it.

“Though I voted for this bill and am proud of my pro-life record, I don’t believe West Virginia taxpayers will understand why lawmakers would be so eager to quickly return to Charleston at great expense to attempt to pass legislation destined for a local legal battle and a very uncertain future,” Miley said in a prepared statement last week.

Meanwhile, West Virginians for Life continues its effort to invoke a little-used provision of the state Constitution to force lawmakers into session.  The organization says it has the necessary support of three-fifths of members of the Senate (21 members), but at last check was still at least three petition signatures short of the number required in the House (60).

Kessler has a problem with the petition-inspired plenary session because the agenda would be wide open; lawmakers could propose any number of bills and be in session for an undetermined period of time.  “We’d be down there with anything on the table,” he told me.

A Tomblin-called special session would be more tightly controlled, with the Governor proposing a bill he’s willing to get behind.   One capitol source told me, “I think he could be persuaded to do that.”

Well, maybe.  Tomblin, although pro-life, is also a pragmatist.  He doesn’t go looking for fights.   And election year politics figure prominently into all this.  Democrats are worried about losing the House of Delegates, and vulnerable members believe Republican opponents could use the abortion issue against them in November.

But some of those same House Democrats don’t want to cross their Governor and their Speaker by coming out in favor of revisiting the bill.

As for Kessler, he sounds like he just wants to get it done.  “We are going to have a pain capable bill,” he told me.  “That’s a given.  You’ve got a pro-life Governor, a pro-life Speaker, a pro-life Senate President and pro-life majorities in both houses.”

Abortion is one of the most difficult issues of our time.  It’s highly personal, but also a matter of public policy.  It does not lend itself easily to compromise or conciliation.  No wonder West Virginia lawmakers are struggling to find a way forward that satisfies their constituents as well as their consciences.



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