Texas lawmakers reconvene for new abortion fight
Austin, Texas • State troopers lined the halls of the Texas Capitol, and 5,000 protesters rallied outside against proposed abortion legislation, as lawmakers convened Monday for a second special session that Republican leaders pledged wouldn't descend into chaos like the first.
The Texas House and Senate each met for less than an hour before recessing for the week. That was just long enough to schedule new committee hearings for the proposed restrictions that would make Texas one of the toughest places in the nation for women to get abortions.
Less than one week earlier, Democrats scored a rare victory in the GOP-dominated Legislature by running out the clock on the first special session.
Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth was on her feet for more than 12 hours speaking most of that time during the Democratic filibuster. When Republicans used parliamentary technicalities to silence her, hundreds of protesters in the public gallery and surrounding Capitol corridors cheered so loudly that work on the bill couldn't be completed before the midnight deadline.
"You're going to see a completely different debate this time around," said Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from The Woodlands. "We're not under that kind of timeline this time around."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took no chances with raucous protesters in the second special session on Monday. Security was much tighter than before, with troopers some of them in riot gear throughout the Capitol complex.
When protesters filed into the House and Senate galleries, pages provided them with copies of the rules warning them that if they disrupted the proceedings, they'd be ejected. There were no arrests or any incidents of violence reported.
And Dewhurst said the Senate would make one major procedural change as well. Rather than follow tradition and require a two-thirds vote to bring up a bill for consideration, he said it would take only a simple majority during this session. That could prove critical because Democrats hold 12 out of 31 seats and successfully blocked the abortion law during the regular legislative session.
On the House side, State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said he would only allow less than nine hours of public testimony on the bill. Public protests erupted two weeks ago when he cut off testimony during the last session after 12 hours and denied more than 260 women the chance to speak.
"A wise man once said, nothing good happens after midnight," Cook said, explaining why he was limiting testimony.
Although there would be no action on either floor during the Fourth of July week, committees were set to hold public hearings to consider the measure.
Cook said his committee could approve the bill early Wednesday morning. The soonest the bill could pass the full Legislature is July 10, unless the Republican majorities suspend the rules to move it sooner. Gov. Rick Perry could sign the bill into law almost immediately.
"The Texas Legislature is poised to finish its history-making work this year by passing legislation to protect the unborn and women's health," Perry said Monday in a statement.
Democrats can do little to stop the bill this time, only slow it down with parliamentary procedure. A late start gave Davis a chance to filibuster the bill on the last day of the session, but with 30 days in the new one, a repeat seems nearly impossible.
"We know where the votes are. We also know what the calendar is. We know how difficult that calendar can be when its working against you," said Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson, suggesting the bill will likely end up in court. "If they win this battle ... I believe we will win the war."
Davis, whose filibuster helped catapult her into the national spotlight, told a crowd of some 5,000 opponents in orange T-shirts that their support helped her maintain the effort.
"You were at the crux of a turning point in Texas history," Davis said.
The rally on the Capitol's south steps was the largest seen in Austin for years. Although far outnumbered, a few hundred supporters of the bill wore blue and recited the Lord's Prayer outside the Senate chamber.
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.
Only five out of 42 clinics qualify as ambulatory surgical centers and they are located only in major metropolitan areas. Dewhurst has acknowledged that the ultimate goal is to shutter abortion clinics.
Lainie Duro sat on the Capitol floor at 8 a.m. Monday with a stack of feminist literature and sex education books.
"I'm always part of the unruly mob. We refuse to be ruled," she said. "Poor women, women of color, rural women. If they need abortion they will not be able to get an abortion. Health care in Texas is already difficult for people in poverty to access."
Outside the Capitol, Sean Ollech and another protester in blue held up a large photo of an aborted fetus.
"This is so they can see the face of abortion," said Ollech, 32, of Austin. "This is what's going on right now across Texas."