JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — State Rep. Chris Molendorp was in the hot seat. His colleagues were one vote shy of the mark needed to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation expanding Missouri’s religious exemption from mandates to include birth control coverage in health insurance policies. And Molendorp was the only lawmaker left in the chamber who hadn’t voted.
He wanted to vote “no,” just as he had done in May when he was the lone House Republican dissenter to the bill’s original passage. But GOP legislative leaders needed him to vote “yes” for the override to succeed. After several minutes of indecision, Molendorp ultimately lit up the green dot next to his name on the electronic voting board. The veto was overridden. The new law was enacted. And Molendorp was left rubbing his bald head as dozens of colleagues thanked or consoled him.
The scene that unfolded at the Missouri Capitol this past week revealed the pressures and pitfalls of sexual politics in the U.S. — and nowhere have they been more intense recently than in Missouri. Consider the following, in just the past four months:
— On May 14, House Speaker Steven Tilley forged ahead with the induction of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh into the Capitol’s Hall of Famous Missourians. Extra security was summoned for the secretive ceremony for fear of protests from liberals or women’s groups upset that Limbaugh referred to a female college student as a “slut” and “prostitute” for testifying in Congress in favor of contraception coverage. Limbaugh had apologized for his remarks.
— On May 18, the Legislature passed a bill broadening Missouri’s religious and moral exemptions from insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion. It apparently marked the first state attempt to intentionally contradict a new policy by President Barack Obama’s administration requiring most employers and all insurers to cover contraception for women at no additional cost — something opponents say infringes on religious liberties.
— On July 12, Nixon vetoed the contraception insurance bill after an intense public lobbying campaign in which his office received more than 10,000 messages for and against it. The Democratic governor said Missouri already had strong religious exemptions for insurance and expressed concern that an insurer could cite a moral objection to deny birth control coverage to women.
— On Aug. 19, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin set off an avalanche of denouncements when he told a TV interviewer inquiring about his opposition to abortion that women’s bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” The suburban St. Louis congressman has since apologized repeatedly while adamantly rejecting calls from top Republicans to end his campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
— Last Wednesday, the Legislature enacted the contraception bill by overriding Nixon’s veto. The Senate easily achieved the needed two-thirds majority. But the override passed the House with the bare minimum of 109 votes in the 163-seat chamber.
The vote wouldn’t have been so close had it not been for two resignations, an airport delay, some switched positions and a bitter division among some who consider themselves part of the “pro-life” movement.
Tilley, R-Perryville, and Rep. Ray Weter, R-Nixa, both resigned before the veto session, subtracting two likely votes for an override and leaving Republicans with 104 seats and in need of additional Democratic support. Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, would have voted for the override, but he got stuck at an airport in Pittsburgh.
Rep. Eileen McGeoghegan, D-St. Ann, who had voted for the bill in May, didn’t attend the veto session because she was caring for her seriously ill husband. Had she been present, McGeoghegan might have replaced Molendorp in the hot seat. She told The Associated Press she was undecided on how to vote.
Five other Democrats who had voted for the bill in May switched positions and opposed the veto override.
“I’m immovable when it comes to being pro-life,” explained one of them, Rep. Linda Black, of Bonne Terre. But “if we cut off the contraception to women, we’re going to create more abortions.”
Yet Molendorp might never have been under pressure if two of his Republican colleagues had simply remained in the chamber. Reps. Ward Franz, of West Plains, and Scott Largent, of Clinton, both had voted for the bill in May and both were at the Capitol on Wednesday for the start of the veto session. But they both left before the override vote.
Franz and Largent share something in common. Both lost Republican primaries for the state Senate in August after Missouri Right to Life endorsed an opponent and distributed literature against them. Right to Life lobbyist Susan Klein said Franz and Largent weren’t endorsed because they had supported an incentive fund for technology-based businesses that the organization fears could be used to finance human embryonic stem cell research.
Largent did not return phone messages from the AP.
Franz said he skipped the veto override — which was supported by Missouri Right to Life — because the anti-abortion group opposed his Senate campaign.
“I’ve worked hard for pro-life issues,” Franz told the AP. “Then Missouri Right to Life came after me in my last election. I kind of thought they were responsible for me losing. I just thought I can’t reward them with a ‘yes’ vote.”
“I know that can sound like sour grapes, but I don’t think so,” Franz added.
Molendorp, who runs an insurance agency in Raymore, has not publicly explained why he switched from opposing the bill to casting the deciding vote to enact it through a veto override. He did not return repeated messages from the AP.
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