Even some insiders at the state Capitol may not know that, for the past two years, the leadership of the Republican-controlled House and significant elements of the pro-life community have not been on speaking terms.
At issue has been the anti-abortion movement’s effort to define human embryos as individuals worthy of the protection offered by the state constitution. Each year, the House has balked.
The issue is directly linked with embryonic stem cell research in Georgia, and attempts to expand the bio-tech industry in the state.
Frustration with Speaker Glenn Richardson became intense and personal – despite the Legislature’s passage of other anti-abortion measures, including one that required physicians to offer sonograms to women seeking abortions.
Richardson was pro-life in a generic sense, said Mike Griffin of Hartwell, legislative director and lobbyist for Georgia Right to Life. “But he wasn’t ‘USDA choice’ pro-life, if that makes sense.”
So the anti-abortion community was paying close attention last week when David Ralston, the new speaker, appointed state Rep. Bill Hembree of Douglas County, as the new chairman of the House Rules Committee.
The rules chairman is the fellow – the gender has always been so – who controls the flow of legislation to the House floor. The position is considered second in power only to the speaker himself. (Another gender perennial.) Often, the rules chairman becomes the speaker’s top lieutenant and disciplinarian.
Which makes Hembree, who won his first election to the House in 1992 at age 26, the most powerful movement conservative in the Capitol. He is a committed abortion opponent and a participant in the last two GOP legislative attempts to declare that life begins at fertilization.
The lawmaker is a “USDA choice” pro-lifer, if you will.
So does Hembree’s rise grease the chances that Georgians will soon be asked – in a proposed constitutional amendment, on a November ballot – to declare that all embryos, whether in Petri dishes or the womb, should enjoy equal protection?
No, the new rules chairman said in an interview on Wednesday. “There are some things I want to do that have not been practiced in the past,” Hembree said. “One is I will not offer any major legislation to come before the General Assembly. That’s far-reaching. I believe that, as chairman of the rules committee, it’s inappropriate for me to be a major advocate for sweeping legislation.”
Hembree’s predecessor, Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, made some Republicans uncomfortable when he became a powerful advocate for relaxation of the state’s payday lending laws. Lawmakers, in some cases, felt squeezed.
Hembree is the former chairman of the House committee that oversees the state’s university system, and describes himself as a man of broad legislative interests. “But my record will show that I’m a social conservative,” he said.
Sponsors of life-at-fertilization legislation will have his ear, the new rules chairman said – but their legislation will have to bubble up through a revitalized and more independent House committee system. Hembree said he would restrict his advocacy to the House floor.
For instance, state Rep. Amos Amerson (R-Dahlonega), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, will still have primary say-so over any legislation that would ban or restrict embryonic stem cell research in Georgia, Hembree said.
The Douglas County lawmaker acknowledges that, even among Republicans, a balance must be struck on pro-life issues. And that it will often be his job to say no.
But sometimes the manner of rejection is more important than the rejection itself, he said.
“If it’s done in the right way, through the committee process, then as the rules committee chairman I can still say, ‘The bill has some problems.’ I can tell you no, but I can do it in a way that you don’t feel your cause is over — that maybe you go can go and try to figure out a way to change or modify it in some way,” Hembree said.
Griffin, the Georgia Right to Life lobbyist, said the pro-life community can be satisfied with that, and with Hembree’s reputation. The state’s most ardent opponents of abortion can also take comfort in the knowledge that the recent hostilities are over.
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