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.
Democrats successfully blocked the bill in the regular legislative session. During the first special session, the Senate didn't take up the bill until the final day. That allowed Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis to use a filibuster to delay a vote. When Republicans rushed to try to pass the bill in the session's final 15 minutes, angry protesters began shouting and screaming from the gallery. Dewhurst could only watch with frustration as a half-dozen state troopers tried to remove more than 450 people.
The restrictions are a top priority for the Christian conservative voters who make up a majority of Texas Republican voters and want abortions banned. Democrats, however, see the protests as an opportunity that could help them break a 20-year statewide losing streak.
Democrats believe Republicans have overreached in trying to appease their base and alienated suburban women, a constituency that helped President Barack Obama win re-election. Democrats have helped organize the recent protests — more than 5,000 people swarmed the Capitol last week — and top lawmakers have toured the state as part of Planned Parenthood's "Stand With Texas Women" campaign.
The measures under consideration Friday mirror restrictions passed in Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kansas, Wisconsin and Arizona, but passing them in the nation's second-most populous state would be a major victory for the anti-abortion movement.
The Texas bill would require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, allow abortions only in surgical centers, limit where and when women may take abortion-inducing pills and ban abortions after 20 weeks. Only five out of 42 existing abortion clinics meet the requirements to be a surgical center, and clinic owners say they can't afford to upgrade or relocate.
Republicans insist the restrictions would guarantee better health care for women and fetuses. But critics see it as a way of regulating all Texas abortion clinics out of business.
There's one thing both sides can agree on: Abortion rights groups will file a federal lawsuit as soon as Republican Gov. Rick Perry signs the bill into law. Judges elsewhere have stopped enforcement of similar laws while they work their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno contributed to this report. Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cltomlinson
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