The ultimate values issue, abortion, collided Tuesday in the United States Senate with one of the ultimate money issues, bankruptcy.
On Tuesday the Senate voted 53-46 to reject a proposal, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., that would have stopped violent protesters, whether at abortion clinics or any other lawful business or service, from using bankruptcy law to avoid paying court-ordered fines.
In this, the first battle over abortion in the new Congress, two Democrats, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, joined with 51 Republicans in voting to scuttle the Schumer amendment.
Four Republicans joined with 42 Democrats to support the measure. The four Republicans were Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Following the vote to kill the Schumer amendment, the Senate then voted 69-31 to shut off debate and proceed to final passage of the bill, which will come later this week.
The defeat of the Schumer amendment and the success of the cloture vote were major and long-delayed victories for both anti-abortion groups and for credit card companies and retailers.
Although Schumer hinted from time to time that he might try to filibuster the bankruptcy bill if it did not include his amendment, the cloture vote revealed Tuesday that 14 Senate Democrats wanted no further delays in a vote on final passage of the bill.
The bankruptcy reform bill would make it harder for consumers to erase their debts by filing for bankruptcy protection.
Schumer told reporters on the eve of the vote that GOP Senate leaders had told Republican senators “you can’t vote for this because it will hold up the bankruptcy bill” and, as a result, “they fell off in droves.”
GOP leaders, Schumer said, were “twisting arms left and right, not on the merits of the amendment, but rather on the idea that it will hold up the bill.” If the Schumer amendment were added to the bill, the conservative-leaning House leadership would not accept it.
Schumer's case for amendment
“It is a compromise amendment,” Schumer said. “It is not pro-choice, it is not pro-life; it is a rule of law amendment. It doesn’t mention abortion. Anyone who uses violence to achieve this kind of goal, whether it’s animal rights people or anybody else, is subject to the amendment. So it’s fair, down-the-middle amendment.”
He said the text of the amendment was identical to the one that he and Rep. Henry Hyde, R- Ill., agreed to in 2002 which applied to protesters who intentionally violate laws that forbid violent protests close to any facility providing legal goods or services. That would include abortion clinics.
“Not a comma has been changed” since 2002, Schumer said.
The House voted to reject the bankruptcy bill in late 2002, partly due to GOP opposition to the Schumer-Hyde compromise provision.
Necessary or not?
One of the Senate’s leading anti-abortion advocates, Sen. Tom Coburn, R- Okla., said late Monday Schumer’s amendment was unnecessary.
“There hasn’t been one” anti-abortion protester whose debts “have been discharged under the present law,” Coburn said. “There hasn’t been a case where they have been able to hide. If you’re going to do that, do it to anybody who breaks the law. How about a rabid environmentalist that spikes trees? Should they be able to use the bankruptcy court? I think it is designed to try to kill the bankruptcy bill, it doesn’t have anything to do with abortion.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R- Utah, and other Republicans contend that the bankruptcy code already allows for the non-dischargeability of debts where there is “willful and malicious injury” by the debtor.
“If that’s true, it’s like chicken soup, it can’t hurt,” Schumer said Monday. Nevertheless, he argued, “the people who are on the front lines feel they need it.”