AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Amid the deafening roar of abortion-rights supporters, Texas Republicans huddled around the Senate lectern to pass sweeping new abortion restrictions, but the move immediately was cast into doubt as Democrats claimed the vote wasn't taken before the session's midnight deadline and the timing on official records changed within minutes.
Hundreds of protesters cheered, clapped and shouted for the last 15 minutes of the special legislative session in an attempt to run out the clock before senators could vote on the bill, which is expected to close almost every abortion clinic in the nation's second most populous state.
While Democrats as well as assembled reporters watched clocks on their mobile phones tick past midnight, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the voting began just before.
Shortly after the vote, Dewhurst, the chamber's presiding officer, retreated to his office and issued no statements.
According to Republicans and the official legislative website, the bill beat the deadline and now goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who directed that the legislation be taken up in the special session and is expected to sign it into law.
Democrats immediately predicted a legal challenge and insisted the bill didn't pass before midnight. They noted that the legislative website changed: first showing the vote happening Wednesday, then show it was done on Tuesday. Democratic Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa showed reporters two printouts of the vote totals he said he made from an internal Senate system that showed the same change.
"It's questionable to vote when no one can hear to even know if a vote is taken," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
One of the state's most conservative lawmakers, Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, insisted the vote taken amid thunderous cheers, jeers, chants and applause was valid.
"Had that not happened," Patrick said of the outburst, "everyone would have known what was happening."
He was immediately interrupted by Hinojosa.
"This is Democracy! They have a right to speak!" Hinojosa said.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, spent most of the day staging an old-fashioned filibuster, attracting wide support, including a mention from President Barack Obama's campaign Twitter account. Her Twitter following went from 1,200 in the morning to more than 20,000 by Tuesday night.
"My back hurts. I don't have a lot of words left," Davis said when it was over and she was showered with cheers by activist who stayed at the Capitol to see her. "It shows the determination and spirit of Texas women."
Davis' mission, however, was cut short.
Rules stipulated she remain standing, not lean on her desk or take any breaks — even for meals or to use the bathroom. But she also was required to stay on topic, and Republicans pointed out a mistake and later protested again when another lawmaker helped her with a back brace.
Republican Sen. Donna Campbell called the third point of order because of her remarks about a previous law concerning sonograms. Under the rules, lawmakers can vote to end a filibuster after three sustained points of order.
After much back and forth, the GOP voted to end the filibuster minutes before midnight, sparking the raucous response from protesters. As the demonstrators thundered, Campbell urged Senate security to "Get them out! Time is running out. I want them out of here!"
If signed into law, the measures would close almost every abortion clinic in Texas, a state 773 miles wide and 790 miles long with 26 million people. A woman living along the Mexico border or in West Texas would have to drive hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion if the law passes. The law's provision that abortions be performed at surgical centers means only five of Texas' 42 abortion clinics are currently designated to remain in operation.
In her opening remarks, Davis said she was "rising on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans" and called Republican efforts to pass the bill a "raw abuse of power."
Democrats chose Davis, of Fort Worth, to lead the effort because of her background as a woman who had her first child as a teenager and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.
In the hallway outside the Senate chamber, hundreds of women stood in line, waiting for someone to relinquish a gallery seat. Women's rights supporters wore orange T-shirts to show their support for Davis.
The filibuster took down other measures. A proposal to fund major transportation projects as well as 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 did not get votes. Current state law only allows a life sentence without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.
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.
"If this passes, abortion would be virtually banned in the state of Texas, and many women could be forced to resort to dangerous and unsafe measures," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of the late former Texas governor Ann Richards.
Senate Bill 5: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/history.aspx?LegSess=831&Bill=SB5
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