Accusations are flying that Democrats in the New York Senate purposely delayed a vote on abortion rights to late Friday afternoon in an effort to prevent Orthodox Jewish Senator Simcha Felder from voting against the bill. For their part, Democrats deny any such plotting.
The New York State senate is a politically complex landscape. Although on paper Democrats have a majority of the seats, they lost control over the senate in 2012 to a coalition made up of the Republican senators and four members of the Independent Democratic Caucus, or IDC. The IDC consists of politicians who believe in Democratic ideology but sit independently of the party itself. In the case of the New York Senate, the four IDC members opted to join with the Republicans in order to gain power in the senate and push forward their agenda. They felt a bipartisan coalition was the best way for their concerns to be addressed.
As a social conservative, Felder, himself a Democrat, usually sides with the Republicans on social issues. The IDC, for its part, tends to be more liberal, like the Democrats. This is the powder keg into which a bill on abortion rights entered late June.
The bill was originally part and parcel of a ten-point platform for the advancement of women’s rights, and it was the sticking point. Supporters claim it merely codified in law what the 1972 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling had already established. Opponents said it broadened the application of abortion rights unacceptably. When it became apparent that the abortion issue would toss out the whole piece of legislation, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo broke it up into ten separate bills. The first nine had no problems passing in both the NY Senate and NY State Assembly.
The tenth, the abortion rights bill, passed handily in the Assembly. Things faltered, however, in the Senate.
Coalition leaders Dean Skelos (Republican) and Jeff Klein (IDC) could not agree which bills to put to a vote in the waning hours of the senate session. The abortion bill was only one of many on the docket. Late on Friday afternoon, Klein finally advanced the abortion rights bill.
According to many, supporters of the bill — which include the four IDC members and the Senate Democrats — were hoping the vote would come too late on Friday afternoon for Felder to stay and vote against it.
Deputy Senate Republican leader Tom Libous accused, “The Democrats were counting votes. They were waiting for Simcha to leave. They thought they were going to get away with that.”
As an Orthodox Jew, Senator Simcha Felder was expected to leave early on Friday to get home before the Sabbath began at sunset. As the hours ticked on, it became apparent that there would likely be a conflict between the Sabbath and the vote – and as an Orthodox Jew, it was also important for him to vote his conscience on the abortion bill.
Felder consulted his rabbi. “I was told because abortion is an issue of life and death, I was compelled to stay and cast a vote,” Felder recalled.
IDC members dismiss the accusations as ridiculous. “Why would we conspire with the Senate Democrats?” asked Staten Island Sen. Diane Savino, an IDC member who was floor leader during the vote.
Women’s rights groups accuse the IDC of not doing enough to promote women’s rights. They maintain the failure of the bill demonstrates the failure of the coalition. Meanwhile, because the NY State Assembly adjourned earlier, none of the nine other bills of the women’s equality platform passed, either.
And Felder? Not only did he save unborn lives that day, but he even made it home just in time for the Sabbath.