AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Senate convened Friday afternoon to debate and ultimately vote on 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 began debate on House Bill 2 on Friday afternoon, with a vote to follow in the evening or possibly early Saturday morning.
The bill 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.
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!" Supporters of the bill competed to be heard, some praying and holding up crosses and signs that read: "We choose life."
Troopers thoroughly checked the bags of person entering the gallery, which holds almost 500 spectators. Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Rick DeLeon said no props - including speculums and coat hangers - would be allowed into the Senate gallery, per decorum rules.
Troopers tossed tampons, perfume bottles, moisturizers, pencils and other things into the garbage. The leader of the chamber's Democrats, Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, later said he intervened to stoop troopers from confiscating feminine hygiene products from women seeking to watch the debate.
Each spectator was issued a copy of the rules of decorum, which stipulate there can be no demonstrations or attempts to disrupt the chamber's work. The Texas Constitution gives Dewhurst the authority to jail those who break those for up to 48 hours, no court necessary.
"We're going to have strict enforcement. If there are any demonstrations, we are going to clear the gallery," Dewhurst said Thursday.
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 debate goes on too long, Republicans will move to cut off debate.
"I'm not going to let it go on forever tonight," he said.
Sen. Glen Hegar of Katy, the bill's Republican author, said Friday that all abortions should take place in an ambulatory surgical center in case there are any complications, including abortions induced through medications.
Democrats pointed out that childbirth is more dangerous and there have been no serious problems with women taking the abortion drugs at home. They also planned to introduce numerous amendments to add exceptions for cases of rape and incest and to remove some of the more restrictive clauses.
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 an opportunity that could help them break a 20-year statewide losing streak. They believe Republicans have overreached in trying to appease their base and alienated suburban women, a constituency that helped President Barack Obama win re-election.
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.
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