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Iowa legislature on the brink of fights over abortion, nuclear power

As the second funnel week of the legislative session looms two weeks from today, Iowa lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are identifying priorities for the next two weeks. But disagreements and passionate-fueled controversy, however, could put bills on hold until the next year.

Lawmakers could either pass or stall a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks in Iowa as early as next week. House File 5, passed by a subcommittee to the Iowa House this week, was drafted in response to the intentions of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, an abortion doctor in Nebraska, to open a clinic performing late-term abortions in Iowa. The bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Current state law prohibits abortion procedures after 24 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases where the mother’s health is jeopardized.

Twenty-four weeks is considered by many doctors to be the time when a fetus is typically developed enough to live outside the womb.

Other pro-life bills have been voted down this session, including House File 153 or the “Personhood Bill,” which would mandate the state to recognize life starting at conception, and consequently limiting access to birth control and services to treat complications like ectopic, or tubal, pregnancies. This caused some Republicans, who wanted to see abortions at all stages of pregnancy illegal, to give half-hearted support to the late-term abortion bill.

However, House File 5 specifically states life would be considered to start at conception, not 20 weeks, and could effectively end all abortions in Iowa, pro-choice advocates argue.

Speaker of the Iowa House Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) said House File 5 will get the support of the full Iowa House, which is held by the Republicans. As the bill was assigned to the Government Oversight Committee, it is protected from dying in the funnel. Senate Democrats, who hold the majority in that chamber, said they will consider the bill according to legislative procedure.

Democrats and Republicans will also consider a bill guiding the Iowa Utilities Board on setting the rates of a nuclear plant an energy company is thinking about building. MidAmerican Energy is exploring the construction and operation of a nuclear plant. Should it be financed by investors, the Iowa Utilities Board would have to approve the plant.

Nine senators, all Democrats, have urged the voting on Senate File 390 be delayed, in light of the nuclear plant destruction and malfunctions caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last week.

However, both Democrats and Republicans indicated the issue is non-partisan, and an interest of those on both sides of the aisle.

“I think we all have concerns about this,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs), who is not one of the nine, said Thursday. “I commend these nine for asking tough questions. There are questions that will need to be asked as we move forward on this issue.”

Though both Republicans and Democrats agree that renewable fuel and energy need to be a legislative priority, Paulsen said the division was created over disagreement “on the right direction to go. Right now, we’re vetting (Senate File 390).”

Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley (R-Chariton) added, “Most people who are playing politics here are playing politics with Iowa’s future. I don’t know if it’ll take rolling blackouts for people to finally do something.”

Republican leaders said the events in Japan may change the discussion on nuclear power and Senate File 390, though Republicans intend to continue advancing the legislation. The bottom line, Paulsen said, is that nuclear power is “solid, clean, reliable energy.”

Iowa has one nuclear plant, Duane Arnold Energy Plant, which is in Paulsen’s district.

A committee was expected to take up Senate File 390 for discussion yesterday afternoon, with MidAmerican Energy officials present.

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