With prosecutors reviewing whether the last vote on a controversial abortion bill might have involved document tampering , and with thousands of protesters heading to Austin to have their say on the next vote, the Texas Legislature is scheduled to convene again in special session Monday.
On Sunday, groups supporting and opposing abortion rights were imploring supporters to come to Austin to make their voices heard for a 30-day legislative session that begins Monday afternoon — with even Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst urging anti-abortion activists to “fill the halls of the Capitol.”
Abortion rights activists were scheduled to rally at noon Monday on the south steps of the Capitol, followed Tuesday by anti-abortion supporters, in what state officials could make the session one of the largest, most contentious ever. Once again, abortion rights forces plan to wear orange T-shirts and abortion opponents will wear baby blue shirts.
While Texas Department of Public Safety officials were officially silent on their plans, legislative leaders in both chambers said security has been increased to ensure there are no disruptions in legislative hearings or in the House and Senate chambers during debate. Last week, shouting abortion rights demonstrators brought the Senate to a standstill shortly before midnight and killed a bill that would have placed stringent new restrictions on abortion clinics in Texas.
“The decision to force yet another special session on legislation to virtually ban abortion is an affront to the thousands of Texans who turned out in droves to oppose these efforts at every turn,” Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said Sunday.
“Governor (Rick) Perry and his allies lost this fight in regular session, and even after they tried to shut down the democratic process, he and his allies lost again in front of the entire country last week. A fuse has been lit in Austin, and there is growing opposition across the state to these attacks that endanger women’s health and safety. People all across Texas are rising up to demand their voices be heard.”
Anti-abortion groups were just as adamant, with one group urging supporters from across Texas to “bring your family, friends, and your entire church!”
“The billion-dollar abortion industry will not go down without a vicious fight. Right now, they are assembling their minions to descend on the Texas Capitol next week in an effort to, once again, undemocratically disrupt, if not entirely halt, the passage of pro-life legislation,” Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life said in an e-mail.
“We need every pro-lifer to show up on Tuesday at the Texas Capitol in Austin to protect women and life and our democracy! Be a summer missionary for LIFE! … We can fight (the abortion industry) back with thousands of pro-life voices!”
With several abortion bills already filed, along with juvenile justice and highway funding measures that Gov. Perry included on the agenda, leaders in the GOP-controlled Senate and House hinted Sunday their intent was to move the measures through as quickly as possible — and possibly adjourn within 10 days.
In the Senate, a move was underway to reinstate the so-called two-thirds rule for the second special session. Not used in the first, it requires two-thirds of senators to agree before a bill can be debated by the full Senate.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, confirmed he has filed a “blocker bill” to ensure the two-thirds rule will be used.
On Monday, most eyes will be on the Senate — where the first special session melted down in its final hours after a nearly 13-hour filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and where a sitting senator, Dan Patrick of Houston, has since announced he is running against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a rarity in state history. Both are Republicans.
Gregg Cox, head of the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, confirmed Sunday that his office is reviewing complaints that a time-stamp may have been improperly changed after the chaos in the Senate last week. The stamp that originally showed that the abortion bill, Senate Bill 5, was passed just after midnight, on June 26, was changed to show that it passed just before, on June 25.
Midnight was the deadline to end the first special session.
“We have received numerous complaints and we’re reviewing the matter,” Cox said.
The Legislative Reference Library said in a statement Thursday that the time stamp was changed, but said it was done properly to reflect when the bill actually passed. Officials maintain they did not change it at the direction of GOP Senate leaders who wanted the bill to pass. Whether or not the vote was legitimate, Dewhurst said time had run out for him to sign it in front of the Senate, a necessary step before it could be sent to the governor for his signature.
Political observers will be closely watching what happens in the Senate — where a number of senators are still angry with Dewhurst over the meltdown. Patrick was one of the most vocal, and he criticized Dewhurst’s lack of leadership in announcing his campaign on Thursday.
In addition to Patrick, two former senators — Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — are also challenging Dewhurst for reelection. Both of have blasted Dewhurst over the meltdown.
“I’ve never seen anything like this happen, where a sitting lieutenant governor is challenged by a senator of his party,” said Austin lobbyist and political kingmaker Ben Barnes, a Democrat who served as the state’s No. 2 elected official from 1969-73. “I would suggest that will change the dynamics in the Senate, certainly. It should be interesting to watch.”
Bill Miller, a longtime political consultant who works for both Republicans and Democrats, agreed: “It will play out unpleasantly. It will be a head-butt from the get-go.”
For his part, Dewhurst has blamed the chaos on “(an) unruly, screaming mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics … I pledge to Texas one thing: This fight is far from over.”