Texas lawmakers turned down new abortion limits, including a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks, following a raucous, late-night session that required police to force spectators from the Senate gallery.
The decision came at 3 a.m. in Austin today, three hours after leaders of the Republican-led Senate had said the bill passed. The vote occurred amid loud shouting by people in the gallery, angered by the prospect of tighter abortion restrictions. Democratic senators said the vote occurred after the session’s midnight deadline, prompting the reversal.
“There was a vote, but it wasn’t a valid vote,” said Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, adding that this was because votes were still being recorded after midnight.
The measure under debate would have also imposed new rules on clinics providing abortions -- changes that critics said would shut most down in Texas. Following the legislation’s failure, Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who supported the bill, has an option to call the lawmakers back for another 30-day special session at any time.
“We had an unruly mob of hundreds, if not 1,000 people,” Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican, told reporters today. “An angry mob using Occupy Wall Street strategies tried all day to derail legislation that was trying to save the lives of women and babies.”
The Senate voted on the bill as people jeered from the gallery, upset that a marathon soliloquy by Senator Wendy Davis had been ended after more than 10 hours. The Fort Worth Democrat had planned to speak until time ran out on the special legislative session, blocking a vote.
Senator Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, said Perry should call a second special session.
Controversy ensued after Dewhurst ruled that Davis’s comments on a 2011 abortion law weren’t germane, forcing her to end the filibuster.
“Let her speak, let her speak,” the crowd of observers chanted from above, referring to Davis. Many wore orange shirts to back her attempt to block the bill.
This is “the dirtiest political fighting I’ve ever seen,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said in an interview before Dewhurst halted the filibuster.
“They have used bogus points of order and shut down key testimony, all of this after they couldn’t get this bill passed during the regular special session,” Richards said. The bill passed in the House while the Senate lacked enough support to approve the 20-week ban.
At about 10 p.m. local time, Davis was ruled out of order by Dewhurst because she had begun talking about the 2011 abortion measure, which requires a woman seeking the procedure to first have an ultrasound examination and be given an image of the fetus from the exam. It marked the third sustained challenge to letting Davis continue, and Dewhurst shut her down, saying she had broken Senate regulations regarding filibusters.
More than 30 officers with the Texas Department of Safety assembled in the Senate gallery at about 11:30 p.m. local time and ordered spectators to leave as directed by Senate leaders. The move followed loud chanting aimed at delaying the vote by making it difficult for senators to converse, Dewhurst said.
Dewhurst previously ruled that Davis hadn’t stuck to the topic, because she mentioned Planned Parenthood’s budget, and since she had allowed Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, to help her into a back brace which was too small.
The debate caught the attention of the nation, including President Barack Obama.
“Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” Obama said in a message posted on the Twitter Inc. website.
Amid a din of jeers and catcalls and clapping from the galleries, the lawmakers voted 19-10 to accept Dewhurst’s ruling and then to pass the bill.
Senators West and John Whitmire of Houston were among those saying time had run out before the vote had been completed, so it was invalid. In a closed-door meeting senators changed the decision, which was announced by Dewhurst.
“Women in Texas are tired of being at the receiving end of some pretty abusive power plays at this Capitol,” Davis, a lawyer, said after the session had ended. “I’m tired but I’m really happy.”
In addition to the 20-week provision, the Republican-sponsored bill required abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers by doctors with admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (50 kilometers). Most state clinics would have to alter their facilities to meet the requirements, and abortion-rights advocates say many couldn’t afford it.
Republican Senators Patrick and Bob Deuell of Greenville urged Governor Rick Perry to call a special session that would again address the abortion bill. “We’ll see you soon,” Dewhurst said.
Perry spokesman Josh Havens declined to say if Perry was considering a special session.
The measure would “force the closure of multiple facilities across the state of Texas without a single care or concern for the women whose lives will be impacted by that decision,” Davis said. “Partisanship and ambition is not unusual in this state Capitol, but here in Texas, right now, it has risen to a level of profound irresponsibility.”
There continues to be a push of legislation in Republican-led states to limit when and how women can obtain abortions. Some measures, including bans after the 20th week of pregnancy passed in at least 10 states since 2010, are on hold pending legal challenges. Republicans dominate the Texas legislature.
The restrictions in Texas would affect more women than any other state’s because of the distance women may have to travel to the remaining clinics, Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, said in an e-mail. Guttmacher researches and compiles data on reproductive health.
Of 44 clinics in Texas, six meet surgical-center guidelines, according to a statement of intent for the bill by Senator Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican who sponsored the measure. Texas has more stringent requirements for the centers than for abortion clinics. They cover heating and ventilation systems, employee hiring, room size and fire alarms.
Davis, wearing a white jacket over a flower-print dress, slowly walked in a circle around her desk as she spoke on the floor of the Senate chamber. There were occasional claps and shouts of support from the gallery.
She went over legal issues involving abortion and read aloud statements from women’s advocates, crying as she read one from a woman explaining her decision to have the procedure. An ultrasound image showed the fetus had severe abnormalities, resulting in an agonizing decision about whether to end the pregnancy, she said.
“If this 20-week ban had been in place four years ago, then I wouldn’t have been able to make this choice,” Davis said, reading from the statement. At one point she observed that most of her colleagues are men, and that they don’t have the same concerns when it comes to pregnancy as women do.
Republicans hold 19 of the 31 Senate seats, where a simple majority was required to pass the bill. The Senate previously approved the restrictions without the 20-week abortion ban.
Filibusters are used by lawmakers in statehouses around the country and in the U.S. Congress. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, in March spoke for 13 hours against the Obama administration’s drone policy.