Used to giving orders, Kansas abortion foes can't cut a deal

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Anti-abortion lobbyists from left, Brittany Jones, of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas; Jeannette Pryor, of the Kansas Catholic Conference, and Jeanne Gawdun, of Kansans for Life, confer outside the state Senate chamber ahead of a debate on a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion, Wednesday, Jan. 29. 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. The amendment would overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. – Abortion opponents who've become used to giving orders to Kansas lawmakers on the exact wording of new restrictions are stymied now that they face compromising to get a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution on the ballot.

After falling short in a House vote three weeks ago, abortion opponents have pressured a dozen members who voted no, moderate Republicans and Democrats who are Catholic or who represent relatively conservative or heavily Catholic districts. Those lawmakers have been flooded with emails and mail in their districts, and abortion foes are blocking a bipartisan plan the lawmakers generally favor to expand the state's Medicaid program.

But those tactics aren't working yet. The targeted lawmakers appeared as dug-in as ever at the halfway point of the Legislature's annual session.

Kansans for Life, the state's most influential anti-abortion group and a GOP power-broker, has for years told lawmakers what proposals to pursue and has watched them approve the group's language and echo its talking points. The group and its allies remain reluctant to cut a deal to get the two-thirds majority needed on the anti-abortion amendment and may not quite know how to close one — having not had to compromise to get other measures through the Republican-controlled Legislature when a simple majority sufficed.

“They've never been in this position where they didn't get exactly what they wanted,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Kansas City-area Republican who supports the amendment and helped draft the Medicaid plan. “It's something you have to learn on the fly in this business."

Anti-abortion groups' measure would overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision last year that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state's Bill of Rights. They want to put it to a statewide vote in the August primary, when the smaller electorate skews conservative and the measure is more likely to pass.

If supporters can get the two-thirds majorities in both chambers they need to put the proposed amendment on a ballot, approval by a simple majority of voters would change the state constitution. Republicans have that supermajority in both chambers and the measure passed the Senate in January.

But in the House, it fell four votes shy of the 84 of 125 votes needed. No Democrats supported it, and four Republicans voted no.