By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY, N.Y. -- The state Assembly passed legislation Thursday that would provide greater legal protections for women, including strengthening abortion rights in New York.
The approval, 97-47, by the Democratic-led Assembly put pressure on the coalition-controlled Senate to pass the package of bills on Friday, the last day of the legislative session.
"I believe that the Women's Equality Act ranks among the more crucial legislative agendas we have passed in the last decade," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who himself faced criticism this year for how he handled sexual harassment complaints from female aides to Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month introduced a 10-point women's agenda that would enact stronger laws for women in the workplace, such as pay equity. Republicans and Democrats have been largely in an agreement on nine of the 10 points, but Republicans have balked at the abortion piece.
Advocates said it would solely codify the federal Roe vs. Wade decision into state law. Opponents said the measure would expand late-term abortions.
The Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, said it was prepared to vote for nine of the 10 points, not the abortion component.
"We expect to take up and pass a comprehensive 9-point women's equality agenda that extends additional protections to the victims of domestic violence, combats human trafficking and creates zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace," said Kelly Cummings, a spokeswoman for Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County. "Senator Skelos continues to oppose bringing the governor's abortion proposal to the floor."
Cuomo urged the Senate to vote on all 10 points.
"Each and every part of the Women's Equality Act is vitally important to the future of women in our state, and New Yorkers deserve to know where all their elected representatives stand on all of them," Cuomo said in a statement.
The Assembly spent about four hours debating the bill, with Democratic women lawmakers answering questions from Republicans. They faced criticism about the need for parts of the bill, particularly the abortion language.
"I'm not one who is going to be silent for the unborn children that will be sentenced to death should this legislation pass," said Assemblyman David DiPietro, R-East Aurora, Erie County.
Democrats rejected the concerns, saying that women should have abortion rights secured in New York if Roe vs. Wade was overturned.
"People - men, women - cannot be free people unless they control their own bodies," said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca. "If you do not control your own body, you are not a free person."
The debate got tense at times. Silver, the speaker since 1994, has been under fire for not swiftly investigating initial harassment complaints from Lopez's aides, and some Assembly Republicans have called on him to resign. The women's agenda enacts tougher laws on sexual harassment for small businesses.
When some Republicans tried to criticize Silver's handling of the Lopez case on the floor, they were quickly cut off.
Assemblyman Steve Katz, R-Yorktown, Westchester County, said he wanted to "clear the air" and "have us talk about something that been like a stinking miasma around this body for the last few months."
He went to say that, "I have watched this season a legislative body that has protected and supported a speaker with 12-year history of enabling ..." and then he was stopped by Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Aubry, D-Queens.
"Mr. Katz, we are constrained in our remarks that are before us," Aubry said. "Other issues relative to the operation of the house or other issues are not in order as long as we are addressing a bill."
Later asked by reporters about the restricted debate, Silver said, "It was conducted pursuant to the rules of the house," and Silver said that no one's microphones were muted.
The four-member Independent Democratic Conference, which shares power with Senate Republicans, is under pressure to hold the abortion vote. The IDC on Thursday was trying to garner the 32 votes needed for passage by trying to get senators to sign a pledge to support the measure.
IDC spokesman Eric Soufer said, "This is a good faith effort to determine those senators who support the bill, and who are, in fact, pro-choice."
But Senate Democrats called it a stunt.
"I think the time to talk about what we're going to do has ended," said Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers. "Tomorrow is the day that hopefully every single point will come to a vote."
Pro-life groups said New York already has the most abortions in the country.
"Whether it is packaged with nine other bills or 99 other bills, late-term abortion expansion is still unconscionable," said Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative group based in Spencerport, Monroe County.
The Legislature is expected to vote Friday on other major components of Cuomo's agenda: legalizing four upstate casinos and allowing tax-free zones for businesses who locate near college campuses.
Lawmakers are planning to work late into the night Thursday and resume Friday morning before leaving for the year.