Scrambling to thwart a threatened Senate filibuster that could doom efforts to further regulate abortions, Texas House Republicans said Friday that they have a plan to speed passage in the closing days of the special legislative session.
If successful, House Republicans expect to send one catch-all abortion bill to the Senate floor for a Monday night vote, making it almost impossible for Democrats to extend debate beyond midnight Tuesday, when the 30-day special session must end.
“We’re going to have the rule book in one hand and a clock in the other and make decisions as we go,” said state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. “But there’s no reason we can’t do this. In fact, we are very optimistic that we can get this done.”
The House will vote on the abortion bill Sunday, the same day representatives will take up a controversial measure on transportation funding. Both bills are expected to generate extensive discussion.
Democrats will be looking for opportunities to gum up the works by dragging out the debate.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, who declined to discuss specific plans. “We all know this is a very important issue.”
Several Democrats were still angry after an emotional State Affairs Committee hearing on proposed abortion regulations ended at 3:40 a.m. Friday after more than 10 hours of testimony. State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said more than 300 witnesses were still waiting to testify, most of them opposed to the legislation.
Around midnight, as the hearing that had begun around 4:45 p.m. continued without a break, Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, announced that the committee would receive only two additional hours of testimony on two proposed bills, saying the comments had become repetitive and unhelpful to the committee’s decision.
The news was greeted with increasingly angry shouts from several hundred people in the audience, most of them opponents of the bills. Several shouted that that they had been waiting to speak since 1 p.m., the original start time of the hearing that was delayed about four hours by extended House debate on three redistricting bills.
After an audience member commandeered the microphone to address the committee, only to be led away by officers, the crowd loudly chanted, “Let her speak.” Cook recessed the committee, returning about 20 minutes later after several Democratic representatives helped restore calm.
“I don’t appreciate you telling me that I am repetitive,” Leslie Simms later told the panel. “I am 22 years old. I will be here every time you come for me, and if you think that’s repetitive, I’m sorry that I’m doing my civic duty.”
Cook ended up taking more than three additional hours of testimony, but Farrar, a Democrat on the committee, said the experience left her feeling disgusted and ashamed.
“Some young women waited for 15 hours to speak” because the hearing was delayed from its 1 p.m. start, Farrar said. “This is a farce. It’s all about appealing to the far right of the Republican Party. … They’re playing political games with women’s health, and it’s just unacceptable.”
The committee didn’t have a quorum present to vote on the legislation when the hearing closed. During a specially called meeting Friday afternoon, the panel approved three abortion bills on party-line votes with almost no discussion.
Realistically, not enough time remains in the session to approve two of the measures — House bills by state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker.
But the committee also approved Senate Bill 5, which contains all of the provisions from Laubenberg’s bills, particularly after the committee inserted a ban on abortions performed after the 20th week of pregnancy based on findings, disputed by abortion rights advocates, showing that’s when a fetus can begin feeling pain. Senators had stripped the fetal-pain provision before passing SB 5 late Tuesday.
Because SB 5 is returning to the Senate, it is eligible to be voted upon before the special session ends.
In addition to the fetal-pain measure, SB 5 requires expensive improvements to abortion facilities and tightens regulations on abortion doctors and drug-induced procedures — provisions that abortion rights advocates argue will likely close 37 of 42 Texas abortion clinics, potentially forcing women to seek dangerous illegal procedures.
Proponents counter that the enhanced regulations will improve health care for women who seek abortions and protect fetuses from experiencing pain.
“Ultimately, it’s about saving (women’s) lives and saving the unborn from being killed,” state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said Thursday at the committee hearing. “That’s what this is all about.”
On the House floor Friday, conservative Republicans met with parliamentarians to weigh options for Sunday’s vote.
The potential sticking point is a rule requiring two votes, typically held on consecutive days, to approve bills.
But instead of adjourning Friday, Speaker Joe Straus recessed the House, meaning that when the chamber reconvenes at 2 p.m. Sunday, House rules will consider it to be a continuation of the legislative day that began Friday, Hughes said.
After SB 5 is approved Sunday — a foregone conclusion in the Republican-dominated House — the chamber will adjourn. A brief time later, the gavel will fall, starting a new legislative day during which the bill can receive a final vote, sending it to the Senate, where it would be eligible for consideration 24 hours later, Hughes said.
Status report on other legislation
• Redistricting: Senate must consider House changes to state House maps.
• Parole for juvenile murderers: Needs final vote in House before returning to the Senate.
• Road funding: House debate expected on Sunday.
• Veto override: Rep. Sylvester Turner has abandoned his effort to restore state funding to Public Integrity Unit.