AUSTIN, Texas – The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature pushed Monday to enact wide-ranging restrictions that would effectively shut down all abortion clinics in the nation's second most-populous state, and Democrats planned an old-fashioned marathon filibuster to stop the final vote.
After the House easily approved it Monday morning, the wide-ranging package of anti-abortion measures was headed to the Senate. But with the special session scheduled to end at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, the clock presented a far bigger obstacle than the votes to win approval there.
Although Texas is just the latest of several conservative states to try to enact tough limits on abortions, the scope of its effort is notable both because of the combination of bills being considered and the size of the state. The proposal would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, limit abortions to surgical centers and stipulate doctors must monitor even non-surgical abortions.
When combined in a state 773 miles wide and 790 miles long and with 26 million people, the measures become the most stringent set of laws to impact the largest number of people in the nation.
"If this passes, abortion would be virtually banned in the state of Texas, and many women could be forced to resort to dangerous and unsafe measures," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of the late former Texas governor Ann Richards.
Supporters, though, insist it will only raise the standard of health care for women seeking an abortion. Gov. Rick Perry added abortion to the special session's agenda and has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
The only way Democrats could block a vote when it goes to the Senate is if one senator filibusters it by running out the clock on the special session. Under the rules, the senator would have to speak non-stop, remain standing, restrain from bathroom breaks or even lean on anything.
Normally the Senate doesn't get a bill until 24 hours after House passage, which would set the Senate debate for Tuesday morning, effectively requiring a filibuster to last 13 ½ hours.
Republicans could try to suspend the rules to force an earlier vote – and longer filibuster. If all senators were present, that effort likely would fall one vote short. However, Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte was attending a viewing Monday and funeral Tuesday for her late father, and it wasn't clear if Republican leaders would try to suspend the rules in her absence.
The first requirement of the bill is for all abortions to take place in surgical centers, facilities designed to cope with major surgeries that could lead to life-threatening complications. The majority of abortions are not surgical procedures, and only 37 of the state's 42 abortion clinics meet that new standard, and many would need to relocate and spend millions of dollars to reach that standard.
Those five remaining clinics are in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and two in Houston. A woman living along the Mexico border or in West Texas would have to drive hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion if the law passes.
Women who may currently take abortion-inducing pills at home would also be required to take those medications in front of the doctor by making visits to the surgical center under the bill.
Abortion doctors also would need to obtain admitting privileges within 30 miles of the clinic under the measure. The lone remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi is currently suing to block this law because no hospitals in the state will grant privileges to an abortion doctor for religious reasons or to avoid political repercussions.
State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, insists the measures are intended to protect women's health by guaranteeing the best possible treatment and forcing abortion clinics to improve their facilities. But after the bill passed the Senate the first time, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gloated on Twitter about how the bill would shut down clinics.
Rep. Jody Laubenberg, R-Parker, led the effort in the House to add a measure banning abortions after 20 weeks, shaving four weeks off current law.
"At five months, we are talking about a human being, unless you think it's still a clump of mass," she said during the floor debate.
Texas House Democrats managed to delay the voting on the bill for 15 hours Sunday night into early Monday morning, but the Republican majority voted to suspend debate, stop pending amendments and force a vote at 3:30 a.m. House Speaker Joe Straus then adjourned and called lawmakers back for the final House vote at 6:46 a.m.
Democrats, though, stayed away until 9 a.m. denying Republicans a quorum. Four Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill and a single Republican from Houston opposed it.