AUSTIN, Texas - More than 600 women's rights protesters crowded into the Texas Capitol on Sunday to watch Democrats begin a series of parliamentary maneuvers to stop the Republican majority from passing some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country.
Democrats began the session by pointing to a technicality that delayed voting on any bills for 4 1/2 hours. The forced adjournment burned up precious time since the session ends at midnight Tuesday and the abortion bill still needs to go back to the Senate for final approval.
While several bills are under consideration, the only one with a real chance is Senate Bill 5, an omnibus bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, require that they take place in surgical centers and restrict where and when women can take abortion-inducing pills. Part of the new law would also require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.
Supporters say the measures are intended to protect women's health, but opponents call them needless regulations to make abortions more difficult to obtain. If passed, 37 out of 42 abortion clinics in Texas would have to close and undergo millions of dollars in upgrades.
"This is important to a lot of people back home," said Rep. Bryan Hughes, a conservative Republican from Mineola. "For many of us, this is the bill of the session."
Anti-abortion groups have enormous influence in Texas' Republican primaries, and incumbents fearing tea party challenges need to register votes on conservative issues before they go home.
Blocking the bill has become a cause for Democrats, who have not won a statewide election in Texas since 1994 but are working to rebuild the party across the state. The Texas Democratic Party joined with women's rights groups and progressive organizations last week to rally hundreds of supporters around opposition to the proposed laws.
"This is our fight right here, today," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. "This is about Republican primary politics, not about a priority for the state."
Gov. Rick Perry called the special session in May to adopt redistricting maps, but added abortion with only two weeks left before the session ends. That decision made it possible for Democrats to possibly kill the bill, even though they hold minorities on both chambers of the Legislature.
House Democrats said they had a variety of methods to stall and possibly even kill the bills late Sunday. But if they do pass early Monday, the Senate must still vote on them Tuesday, giving Senate Democrats a chance to filibuster the bill until midnight.