‘My position hasn’t changed,’ says senator who refused vote for six-week ‘heartbeat’ abortion bill

Riepe still supports 12-week ban; meanwhile, Republican officials urge him to reconsider; one county passes ‘censure’ motion

By: and - April 28, 2023 5:54 pm

State Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha discusses his amendment for Legislative Bill 626 that would’ve shifted it from cardiac activity to a 12-week ban. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from State Sen. John Arch, the Speaker of the Legislature.

LINCOLN — One day after State Sen. Merv Riepe refused to vote for a six-week, “heartbeat” abortion bill, the Ralston senator said he’s not reconsidering that decision.

Riepe said Friday that he had met with Gov. Jim Pillen after the vote.

The governor had urged him to reconsider, but the senator said he remains supportive of a less restrictive, 12-week ban — which was contained in an amendment Riepe introduced Thursday. But the measure was blocked, by legislative maneuvering, from coming to a vote.

‘I’ve told them what I support’

“I’ve told (the governor and his aides) what I support,” Riepe said. “My position hasn’t changed.”

State Sens. Megan Hunt, Jen Day and Machaela Cavanaugh, at center, celebrate with other abortion rights supporters after Thursday’s vote.  (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The momentous vote, which was getting national attention Friday, shocked some Nebraska Republicans who felt that Legislative Bill 626 — which would ban most abortions after about six weeks — was headed for passage.

Riepe was a cosponsor of the bill and had voted, during first-round debate April 12, to advance the measure.

But on Thursday, Riepe, a Republican, and Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, a Democrat, both registered “present but not voting” when state senators got to a vote to end debate and advance the bill to the final round of debate.

The failure of the cloture vote, 32-15, one short of the 33 needed, likely ends consideration of LB 626 for the 2023 session, which ends in June.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen speaks during a news conference to support Legislative Bill 626, a bill that would ban abortion after an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Riepe on Friday did say that the governor “feels very strongly” about the issue and that he and fellow Republicans are looking for a way forward this year or next.

Traditionally, once a bill fails to obtain cloture, the measure is not brought up again. There are other means to get bills reconsidered when they have been blocked, but with an already jam-packed agenda in the final 20 days of the 2023 session, those alternatives appear to be a long shot.

Many opponents of LB 626 had argued that it was too extreme a change from the state’s current law, which bans abortion after 20 weeks. At six weeks, critics said, most women don’t know they’re pregnant.

LB 626 is dead

  The Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. John Arch of LaVista, said Friday that LB 626 is dead for the year.

 That follows what the Speaker laid out in a February memo to his colleagues — bills that fail to get cloture will not be rescheduled.

 But when asked whether another abortion proposal, under a different bill, could come up for debate this year, Arch acknowledged there are “different paths” to do that but said it would take some doing.

 “I won’t be rescheduling 626,” he said.

Riepe had argued that giving women more time to decide might convince some to choose to keep their baby.

The former hospital administrators said Friday he feels very strongly that his amendment for a 12-week ban is the better alternative. Increasing pressure on him won’t change his mind, Riepe added.

Douglas County GOP calls for reconsideration

The pressure includes a call Friday from the Republican Party in the state’s largest county to reconsider his vote.

“The Douglas County Republican Party and pro-life Republicans across the state are shocked and disappointed,” said Chris Routhe, that county’s GOP chairman.

In eastern Nebraska’s Saunders County, the local GOP central committee voted Thursday night to issue a verbal censure of Riepe.

John Zaugg of Yutan, a member of the Saunders County Board and the county’s GOP chairman, said some members argued for a “calmer” statement from the central committee, but the censure was approved.

“We thought (Riepe) was on board with six weeks,” Zaugg said. “It was just very disappointing. A lot of people feel very passionate about this.”

The sponsor of LB 626, State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, declined to comment when reached Friday by the Examiner.

It marked the second year in a row that an abortion bill had narrowly failed to advance.

A year ago, a proposed “trigger bill” fell two votes short. It would have imposed a total ban on abortion when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the constitutional right to abortion.

Later last year, then-Gov. Pete Ricketts dropped plans to call a special session of the Legislature on the abortion issue, saying he could not get 33 senators to agree on a proposal.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.