COLUMBIA — The debate over further limiting abortions in South Carolina threatens to logjam the Senate, effectively ending any chance this year for other controversial proposals including stopping cities and counties from banning plastic bags.
With just six days left in the S.C. Legislature's regular 2018 session, the Senate voted to give priority to debating a bill banning a second-trimester abortion method that foes refer to as "dismemberment."
Democrats, led by Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, immediately promised to filibuster, meaning the session could end May 10 with senators still spinning their wheels on abortion.
"That's certainly a possibility," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, though he hopes Republicans can manage to squash the stall tactic.
A filibuster could doom legislation intended to deal with the fallout of the failed nuclear power project in Fairfield County. South Carolina Electric & Gas and state-owned Santee Cooper jointly sunk $9 billion into the project before abandoning it last July.
Legislation that could advance to the Senate floor on Tuesday would overhaul the 2007 state law that allowed SCE&G to bill customers up front for that debacle. Another would create an advocate to represent customers in utility cases — including hearings this fall about continued billing for the failed expansion at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.
The bills, passed by the House earlier this year, are expected to pass the Senate and reach Gov. Henry McMaster's desk — unless they get stuck behind an abortion debate.
A filibuster over the abortion bill also could be the death knell for a controversial proposal to prevent local governments from banning plastic bags and foam containers, which stood little chance anyway.
The bill would grandfather in local laws approved before Jan. 31, allowing bans in Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, Surfside Beach and Hilton Head Island to continue. But it would void Mount Pleasant rules approved earlier this month and bar any other community from passing local bans.
Rather than the opposing sides falling along normal business-versus-environment or political party lines, the issue pits Republicans against each other in a debate over geographic needs and state overreach. After narrowly passing the House, the bill barely made it out of a Senate committee earlier this month.
Three Republicans — Sens. Greg Gregory of Lancaster, Sandy Senn of Charleston and Tom Davis of Beaufort — have officially objected to the bill, a Senate procedural move that blocks debate.
One objection on a bill is a problem. Three objections mean almost certain doom, especially with few days left for supporters to rally. Debating the bill would require either the opposing senators to change their minds or for that bill to be the next one given special priority status, which could result in another filibuster.
Ending a filibuster would require senators to force their colleagues to sit down. Many senators are reluctant to vote to end any filibuster, partly because the chamber takes pride in being polite and deliberative but also because they don't want to be forced off the podium themselves in some future debate.
Massey hopes the timing — with so few days remaining in the session — prompts senators to vote quickly to end a filibuster that's unlikely to change any minds.
Abortion is a perennial topic in the Legislature, especially in an election year. While senators don't face re-election, Republicans in the five-way primary race for governor are touting their anti-abortion credentials. They include Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who presides over the Senate and led debates against abortion in that chamber when he was a senator.
The bill given priority status would criminalize what's medically called a "dilation and evacuation" procedure, which involves using surgical instruments to remove a fetus in portions.
Abortion foes call it a cruel and inhumane way to kill an unborn child. Pro-choice advocates contend it's a safe way to end a pregnancy in the second trimester, usually when a doctor determines something's gone terribly wrong.
In 2016, it accounted for 0.3 percent of all abortions in South Carolina, or 22 of 5,736, according to the state's public health agency.
Opponents "just want to paint it into something horrible and call it names," Hutto said.
Abortion foes are expected to try to tack on another anti-abortion bill — introduced by then-Sen. Bryant — that would extend legal rights to a fetus. It would essentially outlaw abortion altogether, though all sides would expect a court fight.
The attempt to pack on the so-called "personhood" bill is expected to fail, as it would only galvanize the Democratic opposition and almost ensure the session ends in a filibuster.