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| March 27, 2003

Sen. Dan McGee still plans to cut funding for reproductive health programs if things don’t go his way this legislative session (see “When irony enters the womb,” by David Madison, Feb. 27, 2003), but the Republican from Laurel doesn’t think such retaliation should be deemed “political hardball.” Instead, McGee wants the press to describe the slashing of funds to needy moms and their kids in benign terms. High-risk pregnancies, poor infant nutrition, insufficient pre-natal care—they’re all problems McGee might turn his back on politically—but in a nice way.

Last month, the Independent interviewed McGee about his proposed constitutional amendment, known now in the Montana Legislature as SB 274. The bill would add language to the Montana Constitution to establish a “compelling state interest” in the protection of unborn life. Opponents of the measure say it’s part of an ongoing effort to eventually outlaw abortion.

If SB 274 passes this session, the measure will be placed on the ballot as a statewide referendum in 2004. If it doesn’t pass, McGee told the Independent in February, he will “move to amend House Bill 2” in ways that cut support for reproductive health. HB 2 is a catch-all bill that specifies funding for a variety of programs, including some promoting healthy pregnancies.

McGee’s SB 274 was recently in the hands of the House State Administration Committee. At a committee hearing on March 18, McGee fielded questions about his comments as reported in the Independent. Rep. Frank Smith (D-Poplar) asked McGee if he really planned “to play political hardball” in retaliation to votes against SB 274.

McGee responded by telling the committee, “Those words are the Missoula Independent’s, they are not mine.”

Rep. Smith then asked McGee, “Where would they get them from then?”

To this, McGee replied, “They made them up, sir.”

It’s true that McGee never used the words “political hardball” in his interview with the Independent. Neither were the words attributed to him. In using the phrase “political hardball,” the Independent was simply calling a spade a spade. How else could the paper describe McGee’s threats of retaliation against needy women and unborn children?

The paper made a second call to McGee on March 19 and asked if he now denies his original comments about cutting funding for reproductive health programs as reprisal for any defeat of SB 274.

“I don’t think I’ll even address that,” replied McGee, dodging the question and again distancing himself from the words “political hardball.”

“It may not be a fair characterization,” McGee insisted, without offering an alternative explanation for what sounds like a bare-knuckle exchange of political tit for tat. Strip away the polish applied by McGee, and the senator’s ambitions for SB 274 boil down to this: Support my bill or I’ll stick it to the mommas and the babies.

To be sure, McGee didn’t use those words. But he continues to draw links between SB 274 and funding for reproductive health. His logic works like this: Without express language defining a “compelling state interest” in the life of the unborn, Montana has “no rational basis” for funding reproductive health programs. McGee told the Independent in February that absent his amendment, “There’s no point in having that kind of care.”

When McGee again addressed the House committee weeks later on March 18, the senator chose his words more carefully. McGee said SB 274 would allow the voting public to decide once and for all “whether or not we have a right in this Legislature to either fund programs that deal with fetal life or with fetal death or whether we ought not and use that money someplace else.”

This plea for SB 274 was a lot softer than the one McGee made to the Independent. Of course, in the game of political hardball, it’s sometimes helpful to switch up your pitches.

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