5 Things to Watch as Texas Lawmakers Debate Anti-Abortion Bill Again

Texas Democrats will try to stall an anti-abortion bill in the legislature.

July 1, 2013, 7:20 PM

July 2, 2013— -- For Democrats in Texas hoping to prevent an anti-abortion bill a second time from passing through the state legislature, time will be both an enemy and a friend.

Republicans now have a second special legislative session devoted almost exclusively to passing a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks and impose regulations that would shutter all but six abortion clinics in the state, giving them plenty of time to overcome Democratic objections to the bill.

But they can also count on Democrats to make those days as painful for them as possible.

After Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis successfully stopped the bill in last week's legislative session with an 11-hour filibuster, Democrats and their pro-choice allies now have a captive national audience watching the activities of the state legislature very carefully, increasing the political risk for Republicans who have been labeled by Democrats as anti-woman.

The next several weeks will likely entail a complex game of parliamentary maneuvering, heated rhetoric and political gamesmanship that have both local and national implications.

Today, Texas state legislators will hear testimony from Texans about the bill's impact for nine hours. But with both the full Texas House and Senate in recess until after the Fourth of July weekend, both sides have ample time to nail down their strategies.

Here are five things to watch in the special legislative session:

1) The Usefulness of Stalling and Laying Out the Public Record

With a 30-day, special legislative session at their disposal, Republicans have plenty of time to get their anti-abortion bill through the legislature.

But at the same time, Democrats hope to drag out the issue as long as possible, keeping it at the forefront of the attention of a national audience.

To do that, they'll focus largely on the little stuff, such as calling out violations of parliamentary procedure that could either delay or kill the legislation.

"The other thing you can do is creatively use of the rules and attentiveness to procedure. You look for violations of the rules," said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin. "Calling points of order allows you to delay or procedurally disqualify legislation from being passed."

Democrats will likely continue to partner with national groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL to organize rallies -- like the one outside the state capitol Monday -- to keep the broader public focused on the specifics of the law, and on Republicans' determination to pass it despite public outcry.

In the opening Texas House session Monday, Democrats pushed for and failed to get hearings on the bill to be conducted in hearings throughout the state of Texas.

"I think that's the argument here is that you're acting to limit a constitutional right and you ought to compile a record showing how that's going to affect women," said Hugh Brady, director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the University of Texas Law School. "And to do that you have to go to where the women are. You can't expect everyone to come to Austin."

Still, it's almost certain that Republicans will successfully pass some kind of abortion restrictions either in this legislative session or in a future session Perry may call at any time. But according to Brady, Democrats know that in order to challenge an anti-abortion law in the courts, they need to meticulously establish a legislative record.

"I think they're going to do the same thing they did in the last session, which is attempt to build a legislative record that shows that the alleged scientific underpinnings of this legislation are unfound," Brady said. "They're going to do what they always do -- set a record."

2) Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst Exerts His Influence

It is no surprise that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is running for re-election, is a critical player in helping to push SB-5, now known as SB-1, through the Texas Senate. He faces the threat of a conservative primary challenger in 2014 and, after losing to the Tea Party-backed Ted Cruz in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2012, Dewhurst needs to pass this bill in order to prove his conservative chops to the base.

"Not only does he have to pass the anti-abortion legislation, but he has to do so in an efficient and a timely manner," said Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University. "If, by some stretch of the imagination, this legislation did not pass, Dewhurst should not even bother to run for re-election."

In Texas, Republican primaries are the only races that matter because the primary winner nearly always wins in the general election. And this anti-abortion bill is intended to speak to directly to the base of the party in Texas, which will have the final say in whether or not Dewhurst can serve another term as lieutenant governor.

Some conservatives have blamed him for not using a heavy enough hand to control the Senate during State Sen. Davis' 11-hour filibuster, which eventually killed the bill.

"Dewhurst is living on borrowed time, in some respects," said Brady. "He's never been popular really with Republican primary voters. And I do think a lot of members are blaming him for what happened on Tuesday.

"If he had exerted some influence on that, we would have had a very different outcome."

3) Playing the Long Game

It's no secret that Democrats are greatly outnumbered in Texas' legislature. But this issue could not have been more tailor-made for the state and national Democratic parties, which have labored intensively over the last several election cycles to paint Republicans as anti-women.

Several Democratic groups are hoping to slowly chip away at the Republican Party's dominance in the state, and Davis's filibuster has served as a powerful motivator.

Jeremy Bird, an architect of President Obama's grassroots organizing infrastructure, has teamed up with other Obama alumni to launch Battleground Texas, an effort to turn Texas from red to blue in part through voter registration and turnout.

Bird said that the state legislative battle has been a boon for the group's fundraising.

"It's helpful for funding and for folks putting more resources into the state to do what we're doing here to turn out voters," Bird said. "When you have, literally, millions of people that are sharing your values but just aren't turning out to vote, eventually this can be helpful to mobilize folks."

The key word, however, is eventually.

Texas's political makeup -- mostly Republican -- is by no means in flux at the moment. But Democrats hope that their efforts to tarnish the GOP's reputation among female voters, the growing Hispanic population and independent voters will come to roost closer to 2018 and 2022.

"We're hoping that some of these Republican legislators are going to say, 'You know what? It's not right and it's not worth it," Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, told ABC News. "If they don't, all they're doing is helping the Democratic Party strengthen."

Even though the outcome of the special session remains to be seen, Bird said Republicans are building a "resume" of misdeeds that Democrats will use against them, including Texas' two U.S. senators' opposition to comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

"For the Democrats, they have to think of this as helping to, perhaps, move the dial a little closer to them looking at 2018 and 2022," Jones said. "It's unrealistic to think that this will have an effect on 2014."

4) Wild Card: House Republicans

The untold story of last special legislative session that saw the death of the anti-abortion bill was the role of Republicans in making Davis's filibuster a reality.

House Republicans' reluctance to pass anti-abortion legislation is evident in the fact that more than a dozen bills restricting abortion failed to make it though the chamber in the regular session. And in the special legislative session, it was one of the last items Republican House Speaker Joe Straus took up, making a Davis filibuster possible.

Speaking to Texas reporters in December, Straus dismissed efforts by some in his own party to bring up anti-abortion bills, calling for the party to "get serious about serious issues" instead.

"Speaker Straus did not want this legislation to even come on the agenda," said Jones. "The House committee let hundreds of people testify, and the more people who testify the longer it takes."

"The House is controlled by centrist Republicans in alliance with Democrats," Jones added. "Straus delayed it long enough that he opened up the window for a filibuster."

Hinojosa said that those "citizen filibusters" will undoubtedly be a factor of the Democratic strategy again.

"At the end of the day, in committee hearings our legislators can force the chair not to adjourn and have them continue to accept testimony from women and men in the legislature," Hinojosa said. "The more you see our legislators becoming engaged and demanding that you be heard, you're going to see this process stretch out to the point where we'll be able to have our senators come in and block this bill."

House Republicans also didn't operate from the same playbook as their Senate counterparts. After the Senate passed a version of the anti-abortion legislation without a 20-week ban, House Republicans worked on a version that put the ban back in.

The degree to which Republicans can get on the same page about their strategy could determine how quickly they can get an anti-abortion bill passed.

Democrats are also hoping that Republicans who may have been uncomfortable with taking up controversial social legislation can be swayed if debate drags on.

But Henson said that the intense public spotlight on this legislative session will make Republican defection very difficult.

"It will be a factor again, but I think given the attention and the polarization surrounding the issue right now, it will be harder for House Republicans, even the leadership, to drag their feet," Henson said.

"The situation has changed from what it was a few weeks ago. Nobody in the House really wants to take a hit in the Republican primary for scuttling the abortion bill this time around," he added.

5) State Sen. Wendy Davis' Rising Star

Unquestionably, this issue launched Wendy Davis as a rising star in the Democratic Party almost overnight.Davis made the rounds on all of the national Sunday television shows over the weekend and headlined a rally outside the State Capitol in Austin on Monday.

State Democrats are openly mentioning her potential political future as a candidate for governor.

But even more importantly, Davis's Senate seat is one of the few seats in Texas that is vulnerable to a challenger from the opposite party, making her prominence on this issue even more crucial for state Democrats.

Still, Davis, who is the daughter of a single mother and had a child as a teenager herself, will continue to be the sympatric voice and the face of the effort to stop the anti-abortion bill.

After Texas Gov. Rick Perry attacked her for not learning from "her own example" as a teenaged mom, even some within his own party felt he had gone too far.

"Disagreements over policy are important and they're healthy, but when he [Perry] crosses the line into the personal, then he damages himself and he damages the Republican Party," Straus told reporters on Friday, according to the Texas Tribune. "I think now it's our responsibility to have a civil discourse and move through this process with a respect for the rules and respect for one another."

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