AUSTIN, Texas — This time when the Texas Senate takes up tough new abortion restrictions, the chamber’s top Republican is determined not to let anything — or anyone — derail a vote.
The Senate’s leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, has scheduled a vote for Friday on the same restrictions on when, where and how women may obtain abortions in Texas that failed to become law after a Democratic filibuster and raucous protesters were able to run out the clock out on an earlier special session.
But when protesters arrive at the state Capitol on Friday, dozens of extra police officers will be waiting for them, guarding the gallery and lining the hallways. For those who break the rules, the Texas Constitution gives Dewhurst the authority to jail them 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. “I hope we don’t get to that point but if we do, we do. This is a democracy and we will not be interrupted from doing the people’s work by an unruly mob.”
Every person who enters the gallery will be issued a copy of the “rules of decorum” that stipulate there can be no demonstrations or attempts to disrupt the chamber’s work. Dewhurst plans to have more police on stand-by in case things get out of control.
For Dewhurst, who lost control of the Senate to what he called an “unruly mob” during abortion debate two weeks ago, his political survival relies on passing House Bill 2. 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.
As for the GOP, the restrictions are a top priority of the Christian conservative voters who make a majority of Texas Republican voters and want abortions banned. Democrats, however, see in the protests an opportunity that could help them break a 20-year losing streak for statewide office.
The measures under consideration Friday mirror restrictions passed in Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Alabama, 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 women may take abortion-inducing pills and ban abortions after 20 weeks. Only 37 out of 42 existing abortion clinics in Texas qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, and clinic owners say they can’t afford to upgrade or relocate their facilities.
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 and more than 5,000 people swarmed the Capitol last week to oppose the bill.
Democrats successfully defeated the bill in the regular legislative session. Then, 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 400 people.
This time, though, Dewhurst has scheduled a vote early enough in the session that Republicans have plenty of time to pass the restrictions. Democrats see no way of stopping the bill from reaching Republican Gov. Rick Perry, for whom it is a top priority.
“We do not have the numbers to stop it,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
But Democrats’ hope that Republicans will have hurt themselves in the long term, that they have overreached in trying to appease their Christian conservative base and have alienated suburban women, a constituency that helped President Barack Obama win re-election. Democrats have helped organize the recent protests and top lawmakers have toured the state as part of Planned Parenthood’s Stand With Texas Women campaign to raise awareness about the new law.
Republicans, though, insist they are on solid ground.
The one thing both sides can agree on is that abortion-rights groups will file a federal lawsuit as soon as 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.