The down-and-out Texas Democrats scored a rare and improbable legislative victory this week, and in the process they propelled one of their own, Sen. Wendy Davis, into political stardom.
Now the Republicans get their say.
As expected, Gov. Rick Perry, no stranger to hardball politics or legislative meltdowns, announced Wednesday he would call the Legislature back into special session. It’s set to begin July 1.
And once again, legislation restricting abortion — the same package Davis and her fellow Democrats worked so hard to stop with a filibuster and dramatic midnight showdown — will be front and center. With Republicans in the majority in both chambers, it would seem that only the time and date of passage are in doubt now.
“We will not allow the breakdown of decorum and decency to prevent us from doing what the people of this state hired us to do,” Perry said in a brief written statement about the upcoming 30-day session.
It’s another way of saying the governor, who got elected to statewide office when Democrats still ruled the state virtually unchecked, isn’t about to let them decide what happens on a major policy matter now that the GOP is in charge — particularly a wedge issue like abortion.
Ten years ago, Perry was in a similar spot. Democrats had skipped town to prevent Republicans from passing a redistricting bill. Without the Democratic lawmakers, they didn't have enough members to reach the requisite quorum to transact legislative business. Perry wound up calling three special sessions before the redistricting legislation finally passed.
By temporarily halting passage of the abortion bill this week, the Democrats won an important symbolic and psychological battle. It has boosted morale, and it will certainly help fundraising efforts. But Republicans are still winning the political war. And Perry remains its top general.
“I thought there was really no question that he would” call the new session, said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “He wasn’t going to relent on abortion legislation that he called them in to pass.”
While Perry has made economic development and job creation his signature issues, he maintains his popularity with influential conservative activists by embracing the social issues they hold dear, Henson noted.
As if on cue, Perry and his most likely successor as governor, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, are scheduled to address the National Right To Life Convention on Thursday. By coincidence, it’s being held in Dallas this year. Most political observers expect Perry will soon say he is not running for re-election, though the upcoming special session puts his self-imposed July 1 deadline in doubt.
Perry called the first special session at the end of the regularly scheduled gathering of the Legislature, on May 27. Lawmakers passed the redistricting measures for which Perry initially convened the session. But the other issues Perry added to the agenda failed amid the partisan warfare.
With the stroke of a pen, Perry added them all back Wednesday: the abortion restrictions, which could force 80 percent of the abortion facilities in Texas to make costly reforms or shut down; a measure increasing badly needed funding for transportation projects; and a proposal, pushed by prosecutors, providing new sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds charged with capital murder.
The transportation proposal, as currently envisioned, requires some participation from Democrats because a two-thirds vote approving it is needed. For the other ones, including the contentious abortion legislation, Democrats have little power to influence the outcome. They are far outnumbered in both the House and Senate.
That’s what made their success in the first legislative session so dramatic: They were punching above their weight. Using parliamentary rules and delay tactics, the Democrats pushed the GOP against the wall by forcing the final debate on the abortion bill into the last day of the 30-day session, which ended Tuesday at midnight.
In a dramatic finale, boisterous activists who packed the galleries above the Senate chamber yelled and screamed so loud they disrupted the proceedings. Shell-shocked Republican senators looked like tourists who had taken the wrong exit off the highway and wound up in a hostile neighborhood.
They're not anxious to return there.
A day later, GOP lawmakers cheered Perry for giving them a chance to put down the Democratic rebellion and restore their hegemony.
“Due to the shameful acts of many people, mob rule prevented our Texas Senate from functioning properly,” said Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park. “This is not Texas and this must not stand.”
Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, whom many have blamed for allowing the Senate to descend into chaos, has perhaps more on the line than any Republican in the Legislature. After losing the U.S. Senate race to Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz, he desperately needs to shore up his conservative credentials ahead of a potentially bruising re-election battle, and Tuesday night did not mark a good start.
Congratulating Perry on standing up to the “mob” that he blamed for derailing the abortion bill, Dewhurst said Wednesday that state leaders were “willing to stand up in the face of pressure from Washington and special interest groups in the pursuit of freedom.” He got more aggressive in a fundraising letter seeking to capitalize on the incident, saying "Obama-style" protesters would stop at nothing to "undermine conservative Texas values."
Democrats, meanwhile, ripped Perry for calling a new session, saying it will do little more than waste money and punish women.
“Rick Perry is more concerned with feeding his own political ambitions — even if that means dictating to millions of Texans what they can and cannot do in the most private aspects of their lives,” said longtime Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle. “Even if it means forcing Texas citizens to pay for his expensive partisan pandering.”
Republicans are virtually guaranteed a legislative victory. After all, Perry has the power to call an unlimited number of 30-day special sessions and a demonstrated history of using it. But Democrats, who haven’t won statewide office since 1994, are convinced they’ve witnessing a rebirth of the bedraggled party. Whether they can sustain the energy and excitement Davis aroused with her filibuster remains to be seen.
Sometime after 3 a.m. Wednesday, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, was doing his part to keep the fire going when he addressed dozens of Democrats in the Capitol rotunda. They were still eager to celebrate after Dewhurst conceded that the GOP-led Senate had failed to adopt the abortion restrictions in the chaotic final seconds of the session.
“Your voices were heard; your voices need to continue to be heard,” Watson said. “It is time to elect people that will turn this Capitol around.”
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