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After Democrats return, abortion bill gets final House OK

By Chuck Lindell - American-Statesman Staff

Update 10:20 a.m.: The Texas House gave final approval to Senate Bill 5, voting 95-34 Monday morning to send the bill to the Senate to approve a change the House made to the measure.

That change was the addition of a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy based on medical reports that abortion opponents say indicate that fetuses can feel pain around that age. Abortion rights advocates dispute that conclusion.

Under legislative rules, the Senate must wait 24 hours before considering the bill, which was approved around 10:08 a.m. Monday. Senate Democrats have said that they will try to filibuster the bill until the special session ends at midnight Tuesday.

Update 9:10 a.m.: The Texas House gaveled in at 9:05 a.m. Monday after Democrats trickled in to the House floor, delaying by two hours and 20 minutes a planned 6:26 a.m. start time.

After a quick prayer and pledges to the U.S. and Texas flags, House Speaker Joe Straus got right to business, calling up Senate Bill 5, the catch-all abortion regulation bill.

Original story: Moving quickly to approve tighter abortion restrictions, a sleep-deprived Texas House prepared to convene at 6:46 a.m. Monday after an all-night session ended only two hours earlier.

It quickly became apparent that, aside from four Democrats, only Republicans were milling about the floor, depriving the House of its 100-member quorum. Soon, word filtered to GOP leaders that the Democrats planned to return around 9 a.m.

Republicans were hoping for quick approval of Senate Bill 5, which will become eligible for Senate consideration 24 hours after it receives final approval in the House.

But Democrats were continuing their strategy of the night before, when they delayed action on SB5 by extending discussion about the abortion bill at every opportunity. The goal is to send the measure to the Senate as late as possible to improve the odds of success for a threatened filibuster.

The special session ends at midnight Tuesday.

House Republicans gave preliminary approval to SB5 at 3:25 a.m. on a 97-33 vote after Republicans forced an end to debate and shut down consideration of more than a dozen pending Democratic amendments.

Approval was greeted by applause from Republicans on the House floor that was quickly drowned out by boos and chants of “Shame, shame, shame,” from the gallery. Several in the audience were escorted out by Department of Public Safety officers as Speaker Joe Straus appealed for quiet.

Before cutting off debate, Republicans had defeated 13 Democratic amendments over the previous six hours. Another 16 amendments were left pending.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, accused the Republican majority of wielding their power arrogantly.

“We’re doing everything we can to rush us through this process,” Turner said. “Something is wrong. But people, if this issue is so important, then it deserves the right to be fully debated and fully vetted.”

Rep. Bryan Hughes moved to call the previous question at 2 a.m. in an effort to cut off debate after gathering signatures from 40 Republicans.

The motion was discussed in private at the speaker’s desk, and in clumps of representatives around the floor, for a half-hour before Straus announced that the motion was accepted. After brief speeches from Hughes and Turner, the motion prevailed 92-37.

Three Democrats then spoke against the bill, while only one Republican — Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, the measure’s House sponsor — spoke in favor.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said the bill will force all abortion clinics to close, jeopardizing the health of women across the state.

“The option is not that abortions won’t take place, the option will be that safe abortions won’t take place,” Dukes said. “We haven’t done anything today. We made a point for a Republican primary vote, but in the end what we did was endanger a lot of young women.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, called SB5 an “all-out insult on women.”

“I want to put you on notice, governor, that women are tired of being bullied. We are not living under sharia law, Texas is not a theocracy in which the clerics impose their religious views on everyone,” Thompson said.

“This is a plain, unadulterated bully bill,” she said. “We are soldiers in the army of women’s rights. While today we may be outnumbered and outgunned, our cause is just and we shall prevail.”

Laubenberg, however, said the 20-week ban affected 5-month-old fetuses.

“That is more than halfway through a pregnancy term. It is a baby. Nobody has denied that in this debate,” she said. “If you believe that it is a human being, then that human being also has rights, and we must protect that baby’s rights.”

Laubenberg also said that requiring abortion clinics to certify as ambulatory surgical centers would improve the health care for women who choose abortions.

“This bill ensures that women get the very best health care in a very volatile time of their life,” she said.

Earlier Sunday, House Democrats put the brakes on Republican plans to quickly pass sweeping abortion regulations, forcing a crucial delay as deadline pressure continued to build in the special session’s waning days.

House Republicans had hoped to hold two votes on the abortion regulations Sunday — a move that would have sent the bill to the Senate on Monday, a day earlier than anticipated — but a procedural challenge from Democrats restricted them to one preliminary vote.

Republicans are aiming to avoid a threatened filibuster by Senate Democrats, and members of both political parties have conceded that the bill’s chances of passage are substantially jeopardized if it arrives at the Senate on Tuesday, when the special session ends at midnight.

Denied two votes in one day, Republicans countered with a plan to hold the necessary second vote as soon as possible after midnight Monday in hopes of adding as many hours as possible to the expected Senate filibuster on Senate Bill 5, a sweeping measure requiring extensive improvements to abortion clinics and further regulating doctors and abortion-inducing drugs. It also would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy instead of the current 24 weeks.

Democrats counterpunched with amendments, questions and challenges, while Republicans considered ways to speed the process, including a move to toss out many of the proposed amendments without debating them.

But as high-stakes gambits were flying thick in the House, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst raised the bar, announcing that he believed Gov. Rick Perry would call a second special second session if business was left unfinished.

“Unless I’m misreading him, we’re going to be called back into special session again,” Dewhurst said.

In the House, Democrats repeatedly turned to the rule book Sunday, raising time-consuming points of order and chewing through 90 minutes on votes to postpone consideration of three other bills as Republicans worked to clear the way for debate on the abortion legislation.

“Every minute counts in a special session,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, whose point of order sank GOP plans to hold both votes on Sunday and added an almost 4½-hour delay.

Republicans regrouped, however, confidently stating that they could pass the abortion restrictions in time to get the bill to Perry by calling the House back into session after midnight Monday for the final vote.

“I think there’s still time to get this done here,” said Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

But when Senate Bill 5 finally came up for consideration almost six hours after the House convened, Democrats began offering amendments — about 30 as of 11:30 p.m. — despite a warning by the House sponsor, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, that she would oppose any changes to the bill.

Emotions ran high on and off the House floor.

The House gallery was filled to capacity well before the House session began at 2 p.m., with most of the audience indicating their opposition to the abortion regulations by wearing orange. Hundreds more packed the hall and stairways outside the main entrance to the House, forcing legislators to traverse a thin path to the door, before filling the Rotunda floor for a commemorative photo.

Supporters of the bill were in evidence as well, including a group wearing red tape bearing the word “Life” over their mouths.

In a personal privilege speech, Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, criticized the way a House committee handled a hearing on an abortion-related measure last week, when the chairman ended testimony with several hundred witnesses waiting to speak, most of them against the bill.

“In my nearly 20 years in this House, I have never seen anything like this — not the level of participation, nor the level of disrespect for witnesses,” Farrar said. “Cutting off their testimony, just arbitrarily like that, makes a farce of the system, sort of like what we’re doing tonight by postponing what were important (non-abortion) bills.”

Farrar’s speech was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the gallery. When Speaker Joe Straus gaveled for order, the audience added a loud, sustained shout as their clapping continued.

“I understand this is a very emotional issue that brought you all here,” Straus said when quiet returned, “but I will once again ask you to refrain from displays or disruptions or any kind of disorderly conduct.”

Under SB5:

• Abortions would be banned after the 20th week of pregnancy based on medical reports, disputed by abortion rights advocates, that fetuses of that age can feel pain.

• All 37 abortion clinics in Texas would have to be certified as ambulatory surgical centers, requiring expensive renovations or new facilities to be built. Advocates argue that all or most of the clinics would be forced to close, leaving only five abortion clinics that are currently certified as surgical centers.

• Doctors would have to administer abortion-inducing drugs under U.S. Food and Drug Administration protocols established in 2000, requiring at least one additional doctor’s visit and closer monitoring of patients.

• Doctors would need to obtain admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of a clinic where an abortion is performed.

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