AUSTIN — Texas Senate Democrats dug in Monday to block sweeping new restrictions on abortion, a move that threatened to also take down major transportation and juvenile justice bills with the final hours of the special legislative session ticking away.
The state House debated the abortion restrictions into the early hours Monday morning before the Republican majority in that chamber pushed them through. But that sent the measure to the Senate, where the rules allow minority Democrats to block the bill from coming up before Tuesday morning.
Outnumbered 19-11 — with San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte missing to attend her father's funeral — Senate Democrats held firm their razor-thin margin of a single vote to block the bill from moving forward. And, if they can hold the line until Tuesday morning, they feel they can kill the abortion bill without a vote by staging a filibuster, essentially talking it to death before the session ends Tuesday at midnight.
Had the Republicans succeeded in bringing the measure to floor Monday, the window for a marathon speech to kill it would have been about twice as long.
"It's a lot easier to filibuster for one day than two days," said Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, leader of the upper chamber's Democrats. "We want to do whatever we can for women in this state."
Watson said Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would stage the filibuster since her colleagues felt it was important to make a woman and single mother the face of the fight. Davis gave a filibuster at the end of the 2011 session to temporarily block $5.4 billion cuts to public schools.
The bill would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and force many clinics that perform the procedure to upgrade their facilities and be classified as ambulatory surgical centers. Also, doctors would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles — a tall order in rural communities.
Abortion rights groups warn the practical effect of the bill would be to shutter most abortion providers statewide, making it very difficult for Texas women to have the procedure.
The clash over abortion was far different in the Senate than in the House, where hours of contentious debate was marked by large groups of demonstrators who chanted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" when the bill passed and several lawmakers who waived wire coat hangers in protest.
The Senate wrangling occurred mostly behind closed doors as Republicans struggled to find a way to break the Democratic roadblock to no avail. The vote swung to the Democrats when Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat who voted for the abortion bill when it first passed the Senate a week ago, pledged not vote with Republicans unless Van de Putte was able to make it to the chamber.
She didn't show and Lucio voted with his party, despite his support for the bill.
"Democrats chose not to negotiate and we could not get the block undone," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican who controls the flow of Senate legislation. He refused to declare the issue dead, despite suddenly seeming long odds — but others were less optimistic.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said the Democrats never should have been allowed to put Republicans "in a box" and complained that many in the Senate GOP was "flying by the seat of their pants." He said that if the filibuster succeeds, he hopes Gov. Rick Perry will summon lawmakers back for a second or even third special session.
"I miss my family, I miss being away from my business," he said. "But this is our job. People expect us to do our job, and I think we should keep coming back until we pass this package of pro-life bills."
Patrick added: "If the majority can't pass the legislation that they believe is important and the people believe is important than that's of great concern to me."
Initially Perry called lawmakers into a 30-day special session to address political voting maps which have since been approved. But the governor later expanded the agenda to include abortion, transportation funding and juvenile justice.
After disposing of the abortion bill, the House approved a constitutional amendment that would divert nearly $1 billion from the state's cash reserve fund to spend on building and maintaining roads. State transportation leaders have said Texas needs to spend $4 billion more per year to keep up with its rapidly expanding population.
That bill still needs a final vote from the Senate before it can go to voters statewide in November. But it has been hung up by the abortion debate as all Senate votes have been delayed.
Also stuck is a bill to have Texas more closely conform with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for offenders younger than 18. Current state law only allows a life sentence without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.
Watson said Democrats are willing to pass the transportation and 17-year-old sentencing measures but won't budge on abortion.
"Let's get those up, let's get those out of here," Watson said. "Let's not make these victims of red-meat politics."