Sep 26, 2023 - Politics

Detroit Democrat breaks from caucus — again

Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) listens while then-President Donald Trump, left, speaks during a meeting in 2020.

Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) listens while then-President Trump, left, speaks during a meeting with recovered COVID-19 patients in the Cabinet Room of the White House in 2020. Photo: Doug Mills/Getty Images

One Detroit Democrat is blocking a key abortion rights package that is part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's fall agenda — and it isn't her first time joining Republicans on legislation.

Driving the news: State Rep. Karen Whitsett, who represents the 4th House District covering parts of Detroit and Dearborn, voted against the Reproductive Health Act in a House committee last week.

  • The 11-bill abortion access package, House bills 4949-59, would amend several laws that hinder abortion access.

Why it matters: With a slim 56-54 majority, the Detroit lawmaker's vote wields the power to tank key Democratic priorities.

What they're saying: Whitsett tells Axios she's not just going to be a rubber stamp for the Democrats. She needs to know more before voting to allow state Medicaid funds to be used for abortions, and repealing a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for patients from the time of consultation to the procedure.

  • "To attack me? Someone who's actually been through the 24-hour waiting process to receive the procedure — I'm the person preventing this? I just need to know why they feel like that safeguard should be repealed."

Zoom in: Whitsett, who says she's not the only Democrat opposed to the proposal, cited a House fiscal analysis report estimating allowing Medicaid for abortions would increase state Medicaid costs from $2 million to $6 million per year.

  • "Are there going to be abortion clinics on every corner?" the third-term lawmaker asked in a phone interview Monday.

Between the lines: The package's main sponsor, Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), tells Axios that while a couple of members needed some clarification on the proposals, she thinks Whitsett is mischaracterizing the amount of Democratic opposition that actually exists.

  • Pohutsky tells Axios Whitsett never went to meetings with doctors and lawyers made available for members who had questions about the legal aspects of certain provisions within the bills.
  • "That was a sign that there could be some problems," Pohutsky says.

The other side: "If she's saying that, she's delusional," Whitsett says. "The Speaker's office is well aware of who all met; we had the same concerns."

  • She declined to name the other Democrats who share her concerns.

Catch up quick: Whitsett's willingness to split from her Democratic colleagues isn't new.

  • She was one of three Democrats to vote with the then-Republican majority for auto insurance reform legislation in 2019.
  • And she thanked former President Trump for saving her life during a White House meeting touting hydroxychloroquine in 2020, an unproven COVID-19 treatment.

The bottom line: With a thin majority — the Democrats' first in 40 years — Whitsett's power in doing so is greater than ever.

  • "There is a vast difference between bipartisanship and working across the aisle, which many of us have been able to do, and blocking Democratic goals and priorities," Pohutsky says.
  • "I think that's what we're starting to bump up against, the shift between those two things. It's going to be a new landscape for all of us, including Rep. Whitsett."
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