COLUMBIA -- South Carolina senators voted today to continue allowing the state health plan to cover abortions for victims of sexual crimes, as they pushed debate on their $5.8 billion spending plan into a third week.
The all-male Senate voted 26-20 to trump Sen. Lee Bright's proposal to end the exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
With Bright threatening to prolong the process, the Senate then adjourned without voting on its budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Debate will resume Wednesday, since Tuesday is a Confederate Memorial Day, a state holiday.
Senators spent most of their sixth day on the budget talking around the abortion issue -- on issues ranging from Medicaid to road construction -- as some tried to negotiate a compromise. After that attempt failed, senators voted to close debate.
An incensed Bright took the podium to criticize senators for limiting his time to speak and accused them of killing children with taxpayer money.
"We're supposed to support life," he said to Republicans. "You take away someone's opportunity to be heard and limit debate, you've said guilty to that unborn child for the sins of the father. You're going to kill a child. We've sat here as judge, jury and execution."
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, who occupied the podium for much of the day, said he could not live with himself knowing he could be forcing a young girl to carry a child resulting from rape.
"I'm not going there," said Leatherman, R-Florence. On the cloture vote, he said, "The Senate has historically taken whatever action was needed to get its business done."
A complex compromise offered by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, would've ensured that no taxpayer money paid for the abortions. It would've created a separate account funded solely by employee premiums to pay for abortions in those limited cases. Employees could choose to opt out, so that none of their premiums went toward the fund. But a senator objected, preventing a vote on the compromise.
In the end, senators wound up with the same policy the state's had for three decades: Abortion coverage is barred except in the cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is in jeopardy.
"It's almost dysfunctional," Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said after adjournment. "We've got to get this train back on the track."
Unable to have his say, Bright pledged to drag out votes on every piece of the budget. Because of chamber rules and a new law pushed by Gov. Nikki Haley, each section requires a roll call vote. Bright can spend up to 30 minutes talking before each vote.
"If we can't agree on killing babies, whether that's right or wrong, we're not going to agree on anything," he said.
In budget debate Wednesday, senators agreed to require that abortion clinics notify women that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks. The printed material would tell a woman she can request anesthesia for the fetus during an abortion. The debate then turned to the health care coverage exemptions.
Leatherman said abortion issues don't belong in the budget debate, and he may advocate changing chamber rules to limit debate on what's deemed non-budgetary.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate approved putting $12.4 million in the budget for new school buses. The money is enough to buy 137 buses, according to the state Education Department.
Combined with used ones recently bought from other states, the agency would be able to take all 1984-1986 buses off the road, leaving the oldest at 24 years old.
The Legislature hasn't designated any money for buses since the 2007-08 budget. That $40.2 million bought 529.
South Carolina is the only state to own and maintain a statewide school bus fleet. The Legislature approved a 15-year replacement cycle for buses in 2007. But no money has been designated for buses amid the economic downturn.