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Special Session Offers Chance to Get Attention — for Better or Worse

All eyes are on the Texas Legislature as a second special session is under way. For lawmakers and others running for office, it's a good time — or a bad one — to show their stuff. Here's a look at who stands to gain or lose.

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Legislators thought they’d be out of Austin by now, putting the final touches on midyear campaign finance reports and gearing up for next year’s races — many for re-election, but some for higher offices.

Instead, the Texas Legislature enters the hot midsummer of 2013 fighting over an abortion regulation bill that would outlaw the procedure after 20 weeks of gestation, require doctors to administer pregnancy-ending drugs like RU-486 instead of allowing the women to take it at home and raise the requirements for centers where abortions are performed to a level currently met by only five of 42 abortion providers in the state, according to opponents of the measure.

For officeholders who could be on the ballot in 2014, the summer could rend or mend their chances. Here's a look at who stands to gain or lose.  

Gov. Rick Perry

Unless the Legislature bogs down in a way that splashes back on his leadership, the issue is a winner for the governor. He can call lawmakers back, if needed, as many times as he wants, on an issue that his supporters strongly support. His comments about state Sen. Wendy Davis might give him some political discomfort, but that’s not really session-related. The governor put off an announcement of his future intentions because the session was starting Monday; he might reveal his plans while it’s under way. 

House Speaker Joe Straus

One rule of the Texas Legislature is that the leader of the chamber where a controversial bill comes to its final resting place gets the credit and/or the blame. A week ago Sunday, when the House was squirming through a skirmish on the abortion bill, Straus was a candidate for hero/goat. But the bill met its end in the Senate, and the other guy got all of the attention.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

He literally lost control of the Senate on the last night, forced to give up the gavel when a senator challenged his ruling to end a filibuster and watching over the failure of what he had called the most important legislation of the year from the back of the dais in the Senate. Dewhurst was looking for redemption with conservatives after a loss a year ago in his U.S. Senate race against Ted Cruz. Now he’s looking for a double redemption, and the new session offers only a chance to share credit with others. It recalls the old Maxwell Smart line: “I was that close.”

Sen. Dan Patrick

The Houston Republican was so unimpressed with the performance of the Senate and of Dewhurst that he held a news conference last week — in the lull between the first special session and the second — to announce that he will challenge Dewhurst in next year’s primary for lieutenant governor. That could be crowded, with Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples also in the hunt. Patrick opened the session by promising to force a question on abortion this time before the Democrats can get any steam behind a new filibuster.

Sen. Wendy Davis

The Democrat from Fort Worth pulled a Rand Paul, turning a filibuster into a spin before a national audience and into the center of a public conversation about whether Democrats have any chance of a revival in a state they once dominated. The session offers her a chance to build momentum, but the Republicans have time on their side and another filibuster opportunity will appear only if they blunder.

Others aren’t necessarily in the center of the action, but they’re looking at spots higher on the ballot next year and must calculate whether and how to jump into the fray over the abortion bill.

Reps. Dan Branch, R-Dallas; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; and Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, have their eyes on statewide office. Branch, looking at the attorney general’s office, could be outflanked on the right by Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and by Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman.

Hilderbran has his heart set on the comptroller’s office, as does Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy — the author of the abortion legislation. Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, is also in that comptroller pack — looking for a way to impress voters, or to avoid doing anything that might turn them off. And Creighton is talking about a campaign for commissioner of agriculture.

Others aren’t necessarily looking for higher posts, but will figure into this in important ways. Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, raised some hackles in the first special session by cutting off testimony during a committee hearing — saying it had become repetitive — and then choosing a place to hold the formal committee vote that was too small for a crowd and also isn’t wired for audio and video like other hearing rooms. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, will conduct the hearings in the Senate.

Both chambers have brigades that worked the bill from both sides. In the House, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, got help under fire from Republican Reps. Cindy Burkett of Mesquite and Stefani Carter of Dallas, among others.

And there was a group of Democrats who tried to amend the bill and then voted against the unchanged final version. That group included Reps. Jessica Farrar of Houston, Donna Howard of Austin, Senfronia Thompson of Houston and Sylvester Turner of Houston.

In the Senate, Davis got key help during her filibuster from Sens. Rodney Ellis, Leticia Van de Putte, Kirk Watson, Royce West and Judith Zaffirini. On the other side, points of order called by Republican Sens. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, and Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, and a motion by Craig Estes of Wichita Falls all helped bring Davis’ filibuster to an end.  

That’s the sort of things that gets attention, for better or for worse, and every lawmaker is pondering when and how to take part.

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