Late in the long, sometimes tear-filled abortion debate in the Minnesota House Friday, a DFL legislator sat down for a few moments in the press section of the House floor.
“Something just hit me,” confided the legislator, who asked that his name not be used. “They believe in miracles.”
He wasn’t being either condescending, or incredulous. He was making a simple statement of fact.
Large numbers of the Republican majority in the Legislature do believe in miracles. And that’s why it’s suddenly so hard to see how this session possibly can end on schedule.
It’s one thing for politicians to hold strong beliefs. It’s something quite different when pols believe their beliefs are truths and through some sort of miracle, others, too, will begin to understand truth.
Abortion debate underscores different approaches
The abortion debate most clearly underscores all of this truth-and-miracle business. But it shows up in other dynamics in this session, too.
If the numbers don’t fit Republican efforts to balance the budget, they, miraculously, invent new numbers. If the numbers still don’t work, they come up with miracle reforms that they say will save taxpayers billions while at the same time delivering services better than ever before.
Go back to the abortion debate to see this miracle thinking most clearly.
The Republican majority introduced a bill that makes it a felony for any doctor to perform a abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This would put Minnesota out of step, by four weeks, with federal law. Additionally, this Minnesota law, unlike the federal law, would eliminate virtually all exceptions.
When Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, tried to add an amendment that would allow for some exceptions after 20 weeks when the fetus had little or no chance of survival at birth, sweet miracle stories filled the air.
“The child was born with half a brain, but she just had her 10th birthday and had a wonderful time,” said one.
“Our family was told my brother wouldn’t survive birth, but we just celebrated his 40th birthday,” said another, adding her brother does have “many challenges.”
On and on and on. Stories of “miracles.” The Kahn amendment was voted down. The abortion bill, which will pass in the Senate and just as certainly be vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, passed with the support of a handful of pro-life DFLers.
Other than the “miracle” revelations, there were other interesting facets to this debate. When the subject is abortion, pro-choice DFLers and pro-life Republicans switch sides on their views on government.
On most issues, pro-lifers believe there’s too much government intrusion in our lives. And just as typically, the pro-choicers believe government can do more to make our lives better.
Not in the case of abortion.
Pro-lifers want more government.
“It’s not for individuals to make this decision,” said Rep. Doug Wardlow, R-Eagan. “We can do nothing more important than protect the rights of the most vulnerable.”
Pro -choicers want government and the law out of the process.
“Do you know best?” asked Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester. “Or does the woman whose life is intertwined with the life of the fetus?”
Several Republicans responded by saying abortion actually is “murder.”
It should be noted that this predictably passionate debate isn’t without moments of humor. Much of the session has wonderful moments of humor, if you don’t take your pols too seriously.
Friday’s moment of humor came in the abortion debate.
One of those Republican rookies, Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe, managed to offend women and minorities and still has no clue as to why.
Gruenhagen suggested that he was surprised that pro-choice “ladies” didn’t actually support more and more abortion restrictions. Gruenhagen told the “gals” that with fewer abortions, men, especially in minority communities, wouldn’t “be running off after impregnating girls” and would have to be financial accountable.
There was sort of a hushed silence. A “what’d he just say?” sort of silence.
Rep. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, shook his head and almost started to laugh.
“I just can’t say anything right now,” said Hayden.
Kahn takes on Gruenhagen
But Kahn couldn’t sit still. She rose and explained to Gruenhagen that most women in the 21st Century don’t care to be referred to as “ladies or girls or gals. … Women is the respectful, politically correct term,” she explained.
This, of course, created giggles across the political spectrum.
Republicans, of course, find the term “politically correct” silly, and also many find nothing disrespectful about “ladies.”
After Kahn sat down, a couple of DFL men whispered to her, “Don’t worry, Phyllis, nobody’s ever going to call you a lady.”
She didn’t, however, smile when she was approached by Gruenhagen.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” he said to Kahn. “I have a wife and three daughters.”
“Well then, you should know the politically correct term is ‘women,’ ” Kahn said.
“Ummm, politically correct?” mumbled Gruenhagen. “Sometimes I think that means you can’t say what you think.”
Anyhow, the perpetual abortion issue underscores how hard it is for these two parties to find compromise. But it is only one of many issues.
On Friday, for example, a number of Dayton commissioners met with a legislative panel to outline again what across-the-board spending cuts would mean to various agencies. Parks would close, a prison would need to be closed, programs for vets cut, etc.
Republicans showed they believe in miracles.
It’s not the “intent” of the budget cuts to create the sort of program cuts the commissioners outline, they said. It’s certainly not the intent to force old vets out of a home and onto the street. And because that’s not the intent, they seem to believe those things won’t happen.
It’s the same way that Republicans seem to be dealing with numbers in their own “balanced budget.” Repeatedly, the Republican leaders have been told that their dollar figures don’t equate to the numbers prepared by the nonpartisan Minnesota Management and Budget office.
Republicans respond by simply saying they don’t believe those numbers. And they also say continually say they “intend” to do no harm. They just want to cut the size of government, hold the line on spending and improve the business climate.
All of this makes realistic negotiating very difficult.
It should be noted that it appears that there are at least some breakdowns occurring between realists in the Republican majority and those who want to believe in miracles and their own rhetoric.
Three theories on conference committees
The cracks in unity are showing in the slow pace at which House and Senate conference committees are moving in finishing their work. In some cases, in fact, little work appears to be getting done in these all-important committees. There are three different guesses making the rounds about why the conference committee pace is so slow:
1. It’s some sort of leadership strategy. There’s no rush to reconcile House and Senate versions of omnibus bills if the governor is simply going to veto them. Why not wait, as DFLers did in recent sessions, until the last minute to cram stuff through the legislative process and on to the governor’s desk? When he vetoes their “balanced budget,” he can take the heat for a special session or even a government shutdown.
2. Republicans have so many rookie members and so few experienced leaders that no one seems to really understand how to get the conference committees to finish their work.
3. The differences between House and Senate versions are too big to reconcile. For example, massive Human Services omnibus bills passed by the House and Senate have little in common, and efforts to reconcile the differences have barely moved. The theory: Republicans, for all their talk of crisp, “businesslike” discipline, have befuddled themselves as much as DFLers regularly did in the past.
Do Republicans believe in miracles and that Dayton will come to see the wisdom of their thinking? Do they have a grand plan that will become clear at any moment? Or are they just bumbling along, as legislative bodies typically do? All will become clear soon.
Certainly, though, nothing became clear last week.
“Nothing was accomplished,” said a blunt House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.