It was Erev Shabbos at the New York State Capitol, and Simcha Felder, a state senator who is an Orthodox Jew, was itching to cast his vote on a controversial measure concerning the state’s unborn pushed by liberal Democrats and then travel to Lakewood where he would be spending Shabbos with his family.
Felder, the deciding vote on the pending bill, got a psak from a Rav he consulted that due to the life-and-death nature of the bill, he was permitted, even required, to remain in Albany for Shabbos if that meant he could kill the bill.
But as the morning dragged on, Felder saw no sign that the Senate was readying for a vote.
It was a drama that played out this past Friday in Albany.
The bill itself was passed earlier by the Senate but only with nine non-controversial parts attached, such as establishing equal pay for women. Senate Co-Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) did not allow the tenth clause to be brought to a vote.
However, Jeff Klein, leader of the four-member Independent Democratic Conference which is allied with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wanted to hand a victory to the Democratic governor, who said in his state of the state address back in January that the bill was a top domestic priority.
Klein’s plan, one which Republicans say was coordinated with the Senate Democrats, was to add the divisive tenth clause to a medical records bill sponsored by Sen. Marty Golden (R-Flatbush). As Friday was the last day of the 2013 session, it was known that that was the day when it would come for a vote.
But Felder, his eye on the clock as it passed noon, listened in the chamber as Democrats made rambling floor speeches and asked questions, obviously indifferent to the fact that Shabbos would begin at 8:12 in Brooklyn, three hours away from Albany. Cuomo was still making calls to Republican senators, trying to peel off at least one of them to allow the amendment to pass.
“You know they are waiting for you to leave for Shabbos,” Sen. Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican who is the floor leader of the majority coalition, told Felder matter-of-factly.
At about 4:15 p.m., Felder left the chamber and spotted Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) in the hallway.
“It looks like we will be spending Shabbos together in Albany,” he told the non-religious Jewish senator, according to the GOP sources, who paraphrased the conversation for Hamodia.
“Why?” Krueger asked in surprise. “You’re not leaving?”
“No,” Felder said. “I am staying until the bill is struck down.”
Felder then returned to the chamber, and within 15 minutes, the entire Democratic conference was there, six hours after the session had been scheduled to begin. Klein presented his amendment, and it went down 32 to 31, with Felder as the decisive vote.
Republican sources are now charging their Democratic counterparts of exploiting Felder’s status as a shomer Shabbos to slip what would have been a landmark progressive bill through the legislature.
“By slowing things down,” Mark Hansen, a spokesman for the GOP caucus, told Hamodia Tuesday, “that certainly would impact that particular piece of legislation in terms of the timing of Senator Felder and when he needed to leave to observe the Sabbath.”
If Felder would have left Albany, the bill would have had a 31-31 tie, with Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy casting the deciding vote in favor. The GOP is claiming that the Democrats conferencing that day was merely a ploy to deny the chamber the quorum needed to vote, until Felder left.
“Obviously, the Democrats in the Senate wanted to pass this amendment,” Hansen said, “and they were slowing down the session on a Friday afternoon.”
Keith Glazer, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic leader of the Senate, denied the charge emphatically.
“I was in the conference at the time,” Glazer said, “[and Stewart-Cousins] had no knowledge” that Felder would be staying in Albany.
Andrew Goldston, a spokesman for Krueger, said that the senator did not pass on any message to Stewart-Cousins that Felder would be staying in Albany for Shabbos.
“We just think that that rumor is categorically false,” Goldston said. “I mean, [Krueger] may have heard something about Sen. Felder’s travel plans but we weren’t stalling that day, and we certainly weren’t stalling to find out anything about Sen. Felder.”
Glazer said that at the conference, the Democrats were discussing how to vote on the nine other parts of the bill, not the Klein amendment. Calling it a “surprise amendment,” she said they were not even aware that he would be bringing such a bill that day.
“Klein’s amendment wasn’t a bill per se that they would have conference,” Glazer said. “It wasn’t a bill that was brought up on the floor. … The Democratic conference, under Sen. Stewart-Cousins, had no idea that they would be bringing a hostile amendment to the floor.”
A hostile amendment refers to an amendment attached to another unrelated bill. There is usually no advance warning that it will be presented. But a Senate Republican source said that due to the nature of this bill, the Democrats must have known that the bill would be tabled on Friday.
The offices of both Stewart-Cousins and Krueger noted that it was Klein who offered the amendment without discussing with them, and referred questions to him.
A press person in Klein’s office said they were not sure they would have any comment but would get back to Hamodia. Nobody from the senator’s office called back by press time.
In the meantime, the bill was killed at 4:50, and by 5:20, too late to make it to Lakewood, Felder was on the road to Brooklyn, chauffeured with the help of the Republican caucus.
He made it to his home in Brooklyn 10 minutes before Shabbos began.
Felder refused to comment on the allegations beyond saying, “I hope and pray that nobody had the audacity to discriminate against somebody’s religious beliefs to manipulate the process for political purposes.”
But he said that he was grateful to be able to strike down a bill of such immoral values.
“It’s very rare that Hashem gives you an opportunity to have such as impact on such a critical issue,” he said.