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Georgia lawmakers pass abortion bill on last day

The Georgia Capitol building

The Georgia Capitol building

— New restrictions on late-term abortions in Georgia, which had appeared dead in the morning, and a bill that would cut unemployment benefits for Georgians, passed with just minutes remaining in the 2012 session.

The work to get them passed highlighted a more-than-14-hour day, one full of compromises that dominated much of lawmakers' work.

The day's most intense dealmaking was on abortion, the passage of which sparked protests in both the House and Senate. Commonly referred to as a "fetal pain" bill, House Bill 954 was all but gutted Monday after a bipartisan coalition in the state Senate forced key changes.

As originally written by its sponsor, state Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, the proposal would have cut by about six weeks the time women in Georgia may have an elective abortion. The Senate's changes forced into the bill an exemption for "medically futile" pregnancies, giving doctors the option to perform an abortion past 20 weeks when a fetus has congenital or chromosomal defects.

Although the House -- including McKillip and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge -- initially balked, they agreed Thursday to move forward with a compromise. It was to include a definition in the bill describing what "medically futile" means: Profound and "irremediable" anomalies that would be "incompatible with sustaining life after birth."

Other small tweaks to the bill's language were made. And McKillip agreed to keep another Senate change that would protect doctors from civil suits brought as a result of the legislation.

Although not as emotional, a similarly controversial debate has been had about proposed cuts to unemployment benefits.

House Bill 347 was proposed because Georgia needs to repay more than $700 million it borrowed from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits during the Great Recession. Supporters of the bill say they are trying to do that without putting too much pressure on businesses still trying to recover.

Opponents of the legislation said the state created the problem by giving unemployment insurance cuts to businesses. Now, they said, the state is trying to make up for its mistake by taking money from the unemployed. However, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Fran Millar, said he tried to balance cuts to benefits with the need for businesses to share at least some of the burden.

HB 347, as a compromise, would not delay distributing the first unemployment check by a week as was originally proposed. However, unemployment payments would drop from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 14 to 20 weeks. It also would increase the amount taxed for unemployment insurance.

Georgia's unemployment rate stands at about 9.1 percent, above the 8.3 percent U.S. jobless rate. The funding for unemployment insurance benefits comes from taxes paid by employers. Those already receiving benefits would be grandfathered in, but anyone making new claims would be affected.