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SC Senate OKs abortion bills, rejects hate crimes bill in extra session

South Carolina Legislature
Jeffrey Collins/AP
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, center left, speaks to House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, in the House chamber on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Columbia, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The South Carolina Senate agreed Tuesday to come back in special session later this year to take up abortion bills to respond to the possibility the U.S. Supreme Court allows states to ban the procedure.

Republicans rejected a request by Democrats to also include in a special session a bill that would make South Carolina the 49th state to approve a law with additional punishment for hate crimes. That bill will die if not approved before the end of the General Assembly's regular session Thursday.

The vote to add hate crimes failed 25-20 with five Republicans joining all Democrats in the chamber. The vote to approve the resolution allowing the special session with abortion bills passed 36-8 with several Democrats afraid if it does not pass by Thursday, the governor could call the General Assembly back whenever they wish with no limits on what can be discussed.

The special session resolution now goes to the House which must also approve.

South Carolina lawmakers appeared to be taking a pause on major abortion legislation this year after passing a law in 2021 that banned most abortions by requiring doctors to use an ultrasound to check a fetus for a heartbeat and banning the procedure if one was detected. There were exceptions for rape, incest or if the mother's life was in danger. The law is on hold because of a court challenge.

But that was before a draft ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court was leaked last week suggesting the justices might overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to pass full abortion bans.

The possibility led Republican leaders in the Senate and House to include abortion bills with other typical special session items like finishing the state budget and dealing with vetoes from the governor after the regular session ends. The only other unusual item was finishing an election for college trustees that was delayed.

The outlook for a total abortion ban in South Carolina, especially if it does not include exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened, is murky.

Supporters could need two-third votes to get over some procedural hurdles and Republicans currently are three votes short of that threshold in the House and a vote short in the Senate. Plus, several Republicans have said in the past they can't pass an abortion law without the exceptions.

Democrats have been trying to get a debate on the hate crimes bill since the session began in January, but eight Republicans have objected without much public explanation on their reasoning.

Opponents have said increased penalties for crimes committed because someone hates a certain group is unnecessary because a crime is a crime. They also worried a hate crime law could eventually be used to curtail free speech, especially against Christians.

The often more conservative South Carolina House passed the hate crimes bill last year. Supporters have been discouraged it has not been discussed in the other chamber.

Democratic senators complained Republicans have been especially heavy-handed this year preventing them from debating bills important to them.

"All I want is an opportunity to be heard, follow the rules and a chance to prevail on a fair level playing field," Democratic Sen. Ronnie Babb of Greeleyville said.

But Sen. Tom Corbin said those are the breaks for the minority party or for proposals that don't have enough support.

"There's a lot of bills that a lot of us are passionate about that didn't get debated," the Republican from Travelers Rest said. "That's just the process of the Senate. You back up, you try again next year."