Texas Lawmakers Are Back, And So Is Abortion Fight
AUSTIN, Texas - Round two of Texas’ fierce ideological battle over abortion limits was set to begin Monday, less than a week after a Democratic filibuster and hundreds of raucous protesters threw the end of the first special session into chaos.
The Legislature’s Republican majority has vowed to pass wide-ranging abortion restrictions quickly and easily this time, even as opponents mobilize for more protests.
"The world has seen images of pro-abortion activists screaming, cheering," Republican Gov. Rick Perry said. "Going forward, we have to match their intensity but do it with grace and civility."
Lawmakers finished their regular session on May 27, but Perry called them back immediately for 30 more days to approve, among other things, the tight new limits on abortion.
On the extra session’s last day, however, Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth was on her feet for more than 12 hours - speaking most of that time - as Democrats used a filibuster to help kill the sweeping abortion bill.
As the midnight deadline loomed, Republicans used parliamentary technicalities to silence her, but hundreds of protesters in the public gallery and surrounding Capitol corridors cheered so loudly that senators on the floor weren’t able to hear, and couldn’t pass the bill before the clock ran out.
The scene was chaotic enough that Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, called for the gallery to be cleared. With lawmakers now heading back, she said, "I believe more presence by law enforcement will help keep disruptive behavior from thwarting the democratic process."
She said more families may turn up to express their views and "every Texan’s voice deserves to be heard. Not just the noisiest and unruliest."
A repeat scene seems unlikely. Texas Department of Public Safety state troopers provide security at the Capitol, and department spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the agency doesn’t discuss its plans.
"However, when necessary, we will adjust our security measures as a situation merits," she said.
Some of the same protesters already have planned a rally at the state Capitol on Monday, but there may not be much action for them to see. Both the House and Senate could simply gavel in long enough to assign committees to hear new versions of the bills they plan to pass, then adjourn for the rest of the week that includes the July 4 holiday.
But Perry said he expects lawmakers to get their work done more quickly this time, making it harder for a filibuster to talk any proposed legislation to death.
"I want the Legislature to be getting work done that actually that they had, by and large, finished," he said.
House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who oversees the Senate, haven’t revealed plans to do anything differently in the second special session - but it’s lost on no one that moving through the process faster, and ensuring both chambers carry out final votes long before the end of the session, will limit Democratic stall tactics and make any possible filibuster moot because too much time would be left.
The legislative process now starts over, with lawmakers filing bills, committees holding public hearings on each, then passing them to both full chambers to consider. That means reviving the proposals Davis and the protesters killed: banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, requiring that the procedure be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, and mandating that doctors who perform abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.
Supporters say such limits will safeguard women’s health, but opponents argue the upgrades facilities will have to undergo to meet the new requirements are so costly that they will force nearly every abortion provider in the state to close. Dewhurst has acknowledged that the ultimate goal is to shutter abortion clinics.
Meanwhile, some of the Legislature’s most outspoken critics of abortion, including state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, have refiled bills that stalled even before Davis’ filibuster - hoping they can push through stricter restrictions. Patrick, who has announced he will challenge Dewhurst and run next year for lieutenant governor, revived one of his pet projects - a bill placing more rules on the use of abortion-inducing drugs such as RU-486.
Davis, who donned pink tennis shoes for the marathon speech that made her an overnight political sensation nationwide, hasn’t said if she would try something similar again. And, calling more special sessions has squashed Democratic stonewall tactics before.
In 2003, House Democrats fled to Oklahoma to keep the chamber from making quorum and passing new redistricting maps that benefited Republicans. When Perry called a first and then second special session, Senate Democrats headed to New Mexico. But the maps were approved during a third extra session that year.
Even so, Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, vowed: "As this last week has shown, we are ready to fight."