AUGUSTA, Maine — Three Democratic state representatives were in their seats for votes on Tuesday afternoon. When a controversial abortion bill came up at night, they were not.
Their party did not need them, passing the measure 73-69 and effectively clearing it for a signature from Gov. Janet Mills, who has championed the bill. The only reason the Democrats who control Augusta could afford to lose the votes was due to five Republican absences.
For Democrats, it was a high-stakes example of how lawmakers can avoid weighing in on fraught issues by leaving their desks. Republicans said members were gone for a variety of personal reasons. But if they could have wrangled all of them, they may have been able to defeat the bill or forced the holdout Democrats into difficult positions.
Leaving those votes on the table was disappointing, said Carroll Conley, the executive director of the evangelical Christian Civic League, which led opposition to the measure. At the same time, he said those on anti-abortion side should not cast blame. Instead, they should use the opportunity to get organized ahead of future battles in the Legislature.
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“I hope people are gracious and at the same time strategic about what was exposed as a result of a very important vote,” he said.
None of the three Democrats who were absent on Tuesday — Reps. Mana Abdi of Lewiston, Ben Collings of Lewiston and Anne Perry of Calais — responded to emails and calls on Wednesday asking about why they were not there.
Abdi and Perry also were not in the chamber last week when the House advanced the bill, which would allow doctors to perform abortions after Maine’s current viability cutoff, in a protracted 74-72 vote. Collings effectively decided it after he floated a late-breaking amendment that made Democrats wonder if they had the votes to get the measure through.
It was a stunning event given the track of the bill. In the spring, the measure was printed with enough Democratic cosponsors to pass it outright. Only seven of the party’s members refused, including Abdi and Perry. On Tuesday, six Democrats in total voted against the bill, including two cosponsors in Reps. Jim Dill of Old Town and Kevin O’Connell of Brewer.
One lawmaker, Rep. Walter Riseman, I-Harrison, voted with Republicans last week and admittedly avoided the second vote. While he is a “pro-choice person,” he said the Democratic approach was overly broad and that the parties were too strident.
“I was very, very disappointed that the parties couldn’t work together,” Riseman said.
The lawmaker said he could have supported an unsuccessful version of the bill from Collings that would have limited post-viability abortions, or those after roughly 24 weeks, to cases of fatal fetal anomalies. This approach was recently enacted by New Hampshire under Gov. Chris Sununu, but Mills and abortion-rights groups have rejected it as overly complicated.
The debate has invoked Maine’s political geography. Collings is a progressive from Maine’s largest city and a liberal bastion, but he grew up in Fort Kent at the center of a heavily Catholic region. Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, a Catholic, spoke against the bill in impassioned floor speeches on both days, saying he opposed it because of “science and reason.”
Abdi, a Muslim freshman who is one of the first two Somali-American legislators in state history, represents another heavily Catholic city. Last week, Conley held a press event with two imams from Lewiston in an event that looked to be geared toward winning her vote.
Nicole Clegg, the acting CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, did not weigh in on the absences, saying she was grateful for the vote. The top House Republican hit Abdi and the two other Democratic holdouts in a Wednesday statement.
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“They left because they were either forced to by their leadership or lacked the intestinal fortitude to stay, or both,” House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor said in a statement.
The five absent Republicans were Reps. Amanda Collamore of Pittsfield, Gary Drinkwater of Milford, Irene Gifford of Lincoln, Wayne Parry of Arundel and Shelley Rudnicki of Fairfield. Faulkingham blamed Democrats for “mismanagement” in stretching work past a previously scheduled adjournment date last week.
Collamore said she faced travel delays on a work trip. Drinkwater said he made a commitment in January thinking the Legislature would be out, though he would not say exactly what it was. He said it was likely that Democrats would have found the votes to pass the bill even if all Republicans were there. The close vote made him think about his absence, though.
“I’m still torturing myself,” Drinkwater said. “You know how bad I would have tortured myself if it was one vote?”