JULIE CARR SMYTH
AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS — The chief advocate of a blocked Ohio bill that would impose the tightest abortion restriction in the nation vowed Wednesday to use a legislative maneuver to try to force a vote before year’s end despite the Senate president’s opposition.
A host of practical and political obstacles quickly arose that seemed destined to derail the effort.
Janet Folger Porter, president of the conservative action group Faith2Action, said she’ll work to collect 17 Republican signatures on a discharge petition, which can be used to force the so-called “heartbeat bill” out of a committee.
“We’ve got three weeks to find 17 people with the courage to sign and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to end abortion now,’” Porter said. “That’s what they ran on, that’s what they won on, and now we’re just asking them to make good on their word.”
The bill proposed banning most abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat, as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Its backers hoped such a restriction would spark a legal challenge that could lead to overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
Porter claimed that Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus broke a promise to the bill’s backers Tuesday with his decision not to schedule a vote on the legislation, effectively killing it — barring special circumstances — for the session.
Niehaus says he made the decision to halt the bill in order to keep the Senate’s lame-duck focus on job creation and economic growth.
“He did not break a promise,” said spokeswoman Angela Meleca.
Niehaus is in his final weeks at the Statehouse due to term limits. He cited lingering constitutional concerns in his decision not to move the bill.
Porter and her allies are flouting Niehaus’ short-term status, encouraging proponents of the bill to work around him and focus on the new Senate leadership that will take over in January.
Porter declined to say whether she had the commitment of any senator to sign the discharge petition, nor whether one had been drafted. She called getting the names “very doable.”
Porter said Niehaus aside, 22 senators ran on a “pro-life promise.” She also noted that she personally championed the state’s first successful discharge petition in 1994, forcing a vote that led to the nation’s first ban on late-term abortion procedures. The petition was drafted by Republican William Batchelder, who’s now the House speaker.
He said forcing a vote would require two separate discharge petitions: one to move it out of the Senate Health committee, and one to move it out of the Rules committee that sets bills for floor votes.
Niehaus’ decision to stop the bill stung backers led by Porter, who had run one of the most high-profile lobbying efforts in recent state memory to try to get the bill passed. Efforts including heart-shaped balloons, Statehouse flyovers, and teddy bears.
Porter said lawmakers can expect another lobbying push during the lame-duck session, without describing what it might look like. “It won’t be bears,” she said.
She said her group and Ohio Right to Life, the state’s largest and oldest anti-abortion group, have been able to come to a compromise on a new version of the bill presented to some lawmakers this week.
She declined to say what changes were made to the bill to bring the group around.
“Everyone is united in this new heartbeat bill,” she said.
Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said the groups have succeeded in identifying some areas where compromise is possible, but his group does not expect to see them addressed until next session.
“It’s hard to put those points in a 20-second sound bite. These are things we’ve been working on for two years,” he said. “I believe we’ve identified common ground to this, but that’s obviously water under the bridge based on President Niehaus’ decision.”
Even if the Senate approved the bill before the Legislature adjourns in December, it is still unclear whether Republican Gov. John Kasich would sign the bill into law. Kasich says he’s consistently opposed abortion, but has been noncommittal on the measure.
Still, Porter said there’s no sense in holding back until Niehaus leaves: “I’m just going to say that the very definition of insanity is to do thing again and expect different results.”