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Cristina Kirchner now pushing abortion bill in the Senate

VP refers legalization to green-dominated committees, but race is still tight

By | [email protected] | December 14, 2020 1:03pm

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Cristina Kirchner is showing her active support for the abortion legalization bill from her place in the Senate.

After approval in the House of Representatives, the VP and President of the Senate had to decide which committees would discuss the bill in the upper chamber. Her decision to exclude to Committee of General Legislation and Constitutional Affairs from the referrals was another sign that the government is looking for a quick approval of the bill before the New Year.

Although that Committee is controlled by Cristina Kirchner and Alberto Fernández’s Frente de Todos coalition, a majority of its members are pro-life “sky-blue” voters. When the government noticed this, they decided that the only three committees involved would be Women, Health and Justice and Criminal Affairs, where they know they have a safe “green” pro-choice majority which won’t complicate proceedings.

The schedule

The Women’s committee will be considered as the primary, and the reasons for that are clear: the female duo that heads it (Norma Durango from the ruling coalition and Guadalupe Tagliaferri from Mauricio Macri’s PRO party) is also actively militant of legalization.

The headcount of the three committees combined means that the result can already be easily anticipated: the bill will comfortably go through the Senate committee meetings, with the government targeting Thursday for its approval, after four days of discussion.

On Friday, the committees would also meet to discuss the “first 1000 days bill”, also approved last week in the House, whose text claims to give a broader social safety net for newborns and their families, and which the opposition almost unanimously approved despite dismissing it as mostly a “list of good intentions” and “public policies that already exist.”

This is the schedule that has been agreed between the Casa Rosada and the Senate, after a meeting between Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, Legal and Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra (the main author of the legalization project) and Anabel Fernández Sagasti (Cristina Kirchner’s right hand in the Senate).

The Green plan

The plan is to have the bill on the Senate floor on December 29, but something needs to happen first: the greens in each political coalition must do their homework to convince enough people within their ranks to reach a combined total of 37 (half plus one of the 72 Argentine Senators), to make sure that their attempt won’t end in defeat again, like in 2018.

That figure has not been reached yet. But it is within grasp due to the appearance of a new list of undecided Senators, who have shown some willingness to revise their positions and have now become decisive.

The latest estimates show a 33-33 tie among those who have made up their minds, four short of the magic number, although Senator Edgardo Kueider, from the ruling Frente de Todos, is being counted as a green despite not having publicly confirmed it.

Although a 36-36 tie is not possible (because Tucumán Senator José Alperovich is on leave as he faces charges of sexual abuse), 37 Senators are still needed for the half-plus-one quorum to be reached, even if some of them end up abstaining or voting no to save face in pro-life circles.

Government pressure

In the vote at the House last Thursday, the government made its pressure felt. Five lawmakers that were penciled in as “noes” turned around and voted yes, while another three ended up abstaining.

Among those who flipped sides at the House was Misiones lawmaker Flavia Morales, who is loyal to Misiones vice-governor Carlos Rovira, just like Senator Magdalena Solari Quintana, who is also being counted among the pro-life sky-blue team so far. Will the government’s pressure on its Misiones ally reap another convert to the green cause in the Senate?

The main obstacle for the government’s pro-choice lobby in the upper chamber is that the head of the majority Frente De Todos Senate Caucus, José Mayans, is a staunch pro-lifer.

Mayans wants the vote postponed until February or March. The national government is not convinced: they see pro-life groups piling up pressure on their local representatives during the summer, when they are closer to home (this is why many Senators are looking to participate remotely, but from their offices in Buenos Aires City, in order to avoid protests at their house doors).

Swing voters

To help bring more Senators on board, government and opposition greens agreed to make some changes to the text originally sent by the Executive. The main one was broadening the conscientious objection to include institutions, which Ibarra, the author of the project, had originally refused.

With that, as well as the changes on how to deal with under-aged women, the greens looked to convince Neuquén Senator Lucila Crexell, an opposition ally, who said that her province was close to voting yes but remained undecided. Crexell had also asked for a reduction of the legalization limit, from 14 to 12 weeks of pregnancy, as in neighboring Uruguay. But the promoters of the bill were inflexible on that item, thinking that the difficulty to find professionals willing to perform abortions in some provinces might lead to time limits being reached too quickly while women searched for alternatives.

Two Senators that voted “no” in 2018 are seen as capable of changing the outcome this time: La Pampa’s Juan Carlos Marino from the opposition and Río Negro’s Silvina Larraburu from the ruling coalition. Two years ago, they both waited until the last minute to divulge their votes, and only voted “no” when it became clear that the “sky-blues” would end up as the winning side.

In Córdoba province, the polls saying there’s low support for legalization in the province pushed Governor Juan Schiaretti to ask his four allies in the House of Representatives to vote “no”, knowing that the bill would pass the lower chamber anyway and greens wouldn’t protest. The story might be different in the Senate. Even opposition Senators from Córdoba, Ernesto Martínez and Laura Rodríguez Machado, voted yes in 2018, although the greens are not fully sure about Martínez’s loyalty to the cause.

Pro-life resistance

Also undecided is Entre Ríos opposition Senator Stela Olalla, who spoke against penalizing women who abort during the campaign but is fearful of the pressure that pro-life groups have already created in her hometown.

The sky-blue activists will keep resisting with every weapon they have, including the calls from local bishops to senators in each province, which proved so effective two years ago. They are also especially focused on opposition lawmakers this time around, telling them it won’t be strategically smart to hand the president a victory that he will make use of until the last day of his term.

“We lacked strong leadership in the House, but there are a lot of leaders in the Senate. Mayans helps us resist pressure from the government, and (opposition lawmaker Silvia) Elías de Pérez is leading the way to convince those in Juntos Por el Cambio. We remain optimistic,” a pro-life lobbyist used to knocking doors in Congress told LPO.

They are targeting Senators such as Santa Cruz’s Eduardo Costa, who voted yes in 2018 but is also one of Cristina Kirchner’s biggest historical enemies, as potential sources of hope.

But they know that holding their ground will be tough.

Before the 2019 election, pro-lifers asked candidates to sign their “pro-life petition letters”. As it turns out, many who had signed ended up voting yes (or abstaining) last week in the lower chamber, following the incessant visits from government ministers. They will try to stop history from repeating in the Senate, in what promises to be a day-to-day fight.

(Spanish version originally published in La Política Online)