Conservatives in the Texas state legislature volleyed their constituents’ access to legal abortion care back and forth on Sunday in a series of last-minute deals. These ultimately resulted in near-fisticuffs between lawmakers on the house floor and a late-night vote, taken without Democrats and moderate Republicans, to reopen debate on SB 575, a bill that would ban insurance coverage for legal abortion care.
The legislature is on a tight deadline to get bills scheduled for floor debates before lawmakers adjourn for the session at 11:59 p.m. on May 31.
When the Texas house gaveled in at 1 p.m., lawmakers expected a tough debate in that chamber over a ban on abortion care for pregnant Texans whose fetuses have anomalies that would make them unable to survive outside the womb. Tea Party lawmaker Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) had said that he would tack the fetal anomaly abortion ban onto a bill concerning the operations of the Department of State Health Services if his Republican colleagues didn’t promise him that they’d bring the abortion insurance ban, SB 575, to the floor for debate.
Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), who in April said he was reluctant to see the fetal anomaly conversation revived, delivered on SB 575, pushing it out of the House State Affairs Committee on Saturday just in time for the House Calendars Committee, which schedules bills for floor debates, to potentially place it on the house calendar. Stickland pulled his fetal anomaly amendment based on that agreement with Cook.
But in a surprising bipartisan vote, the calendars committee on Sunday declined to set SB 575 for a debate, enraging Stickland to the extent that he took to the house floor to berate Cook. There, according to Houston Chronicle reporter Brian Rosenthal, Stickland “almost” got in a fistfight with his colleague. The House Sergeants-at-Arms were called to escort Stickland from the room, and SB 575 was reckoned to be dead, as the deadline for calendars committee passage had already passed.
Nevertheless, Stickland’s aggressive tactics paid off. After the house adjourned for the night and Stickland had been ejected from the floor, the calendars committee reconvened and voted to suspend their regular meeting rules, meeting this time without any Democrats and without two Republicans who had voted against bringing SB 575 up for debate. Tea Party Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball), who originally voted against SB 575, abruptly changed her mind on the bill and led an 8-0 vote to set the abortion insurance ban up for debate in the house on Tuesday.
Sunday evening marked the second time that Stickland has been asked to leave legislative proceedings; he was forcibly removed from a House Transportation Committee hearing in early May after the chair of that committee accused Stickland of falsifying his constituents’ testimony on a red light cameras bill.