Delegates target family cap to roll back Senate vote

March 26, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Anti-abortion forces in the Maryland House are working to undo the Senate's decision to lift restrictions on state-financed abortions for poor women -- a move that places the Schaefer administration's entire welfare reform bill in jeopardy.

Led by influential Prince George's Democrat Timothy F. Maloney, anti-abortion delegates and others are moving to strip a major provision from the bill, a statewide ban on additional payments to mothers who have more children while on the welfare rolls.

Senate leaders reacted to developments in the House by warning that if the legislation is changed along the lines under discussion yesterday, welfare reform may well be dead for the year.

The Senate moved on Thursday to eliminate abortion restrictions dating back some 15 years, voting 30-19 to approve state funding of abortions under the Medicaid program.

Senators who support abortion rights carried the day by arguing that it was unjust and hypocritical to threaten to penalize an expectant woman while denying her the funds to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Under current law, Medicaid will pay for abortions if a woman is the victim of rape or incest or if her physical or mental health would be imperiled by the pregnancy.

Anti-abortion House members began scrambling for a device to overturn the action of the Senate. In conjunction with some who wished to avoid a floor fight over abortion, they settled on the cap. Remove it, they reasoned, and the arguments used in the Senate may lose their force.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has not taken a public position on their plan, but he has blessed efforts to rethink portions of the bill. "I'm trying to avoid a divided House over a very fundamentally contentious issue that can jeopardize welfare reform," he said.

Mr. Taylor, an Allegany Democrat, opposes abortion but says that his only aim is to enact meaningful welfare-reform legislation.

The family cap is highly controversial. Gov. William Donald Schaefer opposed it until this year, and many lawmakers consider it punitive. The executive committee of the legislative Black Caucus voted against it earlier this week.

In addition, abortion rights advocacy groups have worked against it during the current General Assembly session, finding themselves in an informal alliance with anti-abortion forces.

The abortion rights groups were disappointed when the Senate preserved the cap but highly pleased by the action on Medicaid abortion. They now find maneuvers to scuttle the cap suspicious and aimed at killing the abortion provisions.

Even if the cap is killed, a floor battle over abortion may be unavoidable.

"You can't put the genie back in the bottle," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. He said he would introduce an amendment tacking Medicaid abortion language to the welfare reform bill.

Mr. Taylor now finds himself walking a fine line in the waning

days of his first session as speaker, having been chosen for the post late last year.

He has promised not to lobby against abortion legislation. However, various sources said, the strategy to remove the cap emerged from a meeting Thursday night with Mr. Maloney, Speaker Pro Tem Gary R. Alexander and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, all Democrats.

"Obviously, he's changed his mind," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat. "It seems to me he is going to lobby the issue."

Mr. Taylor denied the allegation. "I'm not going to lobby that part of any bill," he said.

According to the state Health Department, some 6,500 Medicaid abortions were paid for in fiscal 1978, before restrictions were imposed, as compared with 3,230 in fiscal 1992.

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