Texas Capitol now center of larger abortion battle


WILL WEISSERT,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Hundreds of abortion rights activists ensured that the first special legislative session descended into chaos. Now, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has convened a second one and urged abortion opponents to respond with mobilizations of their own.

That means the Texas Capitol will again be the center of an ideological battle over abortion when lawmakers return to work at 10 a.m. Monday. The bell the clerk rings in the House for members to register their attendance could be reminiscent of a boxing match — announcing round two of a larger political slugfest.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

The Legislature finished its regular session May 27, but Perry called lawmakers back immediately for 30 more days to pass new voting maps based on the 2010 census, approve funding for major transportation projects statewide, tighten sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder and impose new restrictions on abortion.

Redistricting maps were approved, but Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth filibustered for more than 12 hours to kill a wide-reaching abortion bill and, in the process, derail the transportation and juvenile justice measures.

As the midnight deadline loomed Tuesday, 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 the ran out.

The scene was chaotic enough that Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, called for the gallery to be cleared. She said that with lawmakers now heading back, “I believe more presence by law enforcement will help keep disruptive behavior from thwarting the democratic process.”

- Advertisement -

She said in an email that 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.

- Advertisement -

But Perry says 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 even stricter restrictions. Patrick, who has announced he will 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 nationally, hasn’t said if she’ll 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.”