AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Senate convened Friday afternoon to debate and ultimately vote on a bill to implement some of the nation's toughest abortion restrictions, its actions being watched by fervent demonstrators on either side of the issue.
The circus-like atmosphere in the Texas Capitol marked the culmination of weeks of protests, the most dramatic of which came June 25 in the final minutes of the last special legislative session when a Democratic filibuster and subsequent protest prevented the bill from becoming law. Abortion rights advocates dressed in orange Friday, some carrying gynecological devices and signs, while anti-abortion activists wore blue and held images of fetuses and Bible verses.
The Senate's leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is determined not to let anything — or anyone — derail a vote again. Senators were to begin debate on House Bill 2 at 2:34 p.m. Friday, with a vote to follow in the evening or possibly early Saturday morning.
"We're going to have strict enforcement. If there are any demonstrations, we are going to clear the gallery," Dewhurst said Thursday. "I hope we don't get to that point but if we do, we do."
House Bill 2 could shut all but five abortion clinics in Texas and would be a win long-eyed by conservatives who make abortion a key campaign issue, but the raucous debate has also given Texas Democrats newfound momentum. The Republican majority is expected to ultimately pass the bill, with Democrats left to do little more than enter into the legislative record material that could help defeat it in federal court.
Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, a chief proponent of the bill, said before the session began that Democrats will be allowed to argue the bill for a while, but if it goes on too long, Republicans will move to cut off debate.
"I'm not going to let it go on forever tonight," he said said.
Dozens of extra state troopers guarded the gallery and patrolled the hallways Friday, which filled quickly with vocal activists. Opponents of the bill settled on the main floor of the rotunda, displaying homemade "wanted" posters of several prominent Republican lawmakers and chanting "Whose choice? Our choice!" Competing for the echoes were supporters of the bill, some of whom were praying and holding up crosses and signs that read: "We choose life."
The gallery holds almost 500 spectators, and a thorough bag check was done on each person. Each gallery spectator will be issued a copy of the rules of decorum, which stipulate there can be no demonstrations or attempts to disrupt the chamber's work. Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Rick DeLeon said Friday that no props — including speculums and coat hangers — will be allowed into the Senate gallery, per decorum rules.
The Texas Constitution gives Dewhurst the authority to jail those who break those for up to 48 hours, no court necessary.
Anti-abortion activist Johanna McCrary of Conroe was one of the first in line Friday morning, and said she hoped there wouldn't be a similar outburst to the one two weeks ago.
"This is America, have respect and reverence for the law. I was appalled," she said. McCrary wore an American flag vest with a sticker that read "Unborn Babies Feel Pain."
Abortion rights supporter Kristi Lara of Dallas, a plastic speculum hanging from her neck, said: "We will not give up the rights our mothers and grandmothers fought for."
Dewhurst's political survival relies on the bill's passage. Once considered a formidable politician, Dewhurst bid goodbye to his Senate colleagues in 2011, expecting to easily win a U.S. Senate seat. But tea party favorite Ted Cruz painted him as a moderate, and now he has three challengers in the Republican primary for re-election.
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