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Abortion opponent promises to stick to job description in new gig as Senate president

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Sen. Michelle Fischbach
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, was nominated by her Republican colleagues to be president of the Minnesota Senate.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

One of the leading anti-abortion voices in the Minnesota Senate will soon have one of the most visible roles at the State Capitol.

Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville will be the first woman in state history to preside as president of the Senate. Fischbach said her priority will be making sure parliamentary procedures are followed. But some abortion rights advocates are concerned Fischbach could use her new authority to push her own agenda. 

The selection of Fischbach as president of the Senate is just one of many firsts expected in 2011. Republicans will be in charge of the Minnesota Senate for the first time in 38 years, and Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, will be the chamber's first female majority leader.

Fischbach said she looks forward to taking the gavel and running Senate floor sessions.

"I'm very excited to get into that role and presiding over the Senate and the rules, making sure that we handle everything within the rules, and everybody gets their say and everything is done orderly," she said.

Fischbach has served five terms in the Senate and was the ranking minority member of the Health and Human Services Budget Division. She also authored many bills to further restrict abortion. Her husband, Scott Fischbach, is the executive director of the state's largest anti-abortion organization, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. On its website, MCCL proclaimed the newly elected GOP majority a "tremendous victory" that means previously ignored bills will now get hearings.

But when it comes to the abortion issue, Fischbach said she doesn't see her new role having any effect on the Senate. However, she noted that the political balance of the chamber has changed.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, jokes with Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul on Nov. 17, 2010.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

 "It's no big secret that I'm pro-life. And I think that most of our elected senators or our incoming senators are pro-life, and I think that there's probably a majority in the Senate," Fischbach said. "So, I don't see it as a problem or should be a concern for anybody."

Her GOP colleagues certainly aren't concerned. Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina said the new Senate leadership picked Fischbach based on her parliamentary knowledge, not her policy positions. 

"She is the first place that I would go to for a question on rules, for a question on procedures," Michel said. "So, I think just that recognized expertise made it a very logical pick for us. She will be a great President of the Senate."

Some GOP leaders have said abortion and other social issues will take a back seat to fiscal matters in 2011. But Fischbach said she fully expects the topic to come up at some point in the session. Abortion rights advocates have the same expectation, and some fear that as Senate president, Fischbach could provide favorable rulings for anti-abortion amendments.

Linnea House of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, said she thinks Fischbach will be an influential player as Republicans push for new abortion restrictions. 

"Senator Fischbach in the past has authored amendments proposed by her husband's organization, and I believe that is something that will continue to happen, whether or not she is the main author or not," House said. "But I do believe that she is going to be someone who is going to be driving their agenda during this Legislative session."

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, also expects Republicans to push anti-abortion bills, but he's not ready to point fingers at Fischbach. Dibble said the late Sen. Allan Spear, who was Minnesota's first openly gay legislator, had some obvious political priorities. But Dibble said Spear never used his status as president of the Senate to try to ram through legislation.

"Universally, Republican, Democrat really found him to be an excellent parliamentarian and presided over the chamber with diligence and with fairness," Dibble said. "And I hope that soon-to-be president Michelle Fischbach will conduct herself in the same manner."

If Senate Republicans do try to enact stiffer controls on abortion, Dibble and other like-minded DFLers are counting on having Mark Dayton in the governor's office -- pending the results of a recount -- to help stop legislation that they believe would inhibit or repeal abortion rights.