AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Republican-led Texas Senate voted late Tuesday night for tough new restrictions on abortion clinics and providers, but abandoned efforts to ban the procedure after the 20th week of pregnancy.
While the U.S. House approved a similar ban after 20 weeks earlier in the day, the sponsor of the Texas bill said he took it out of the state plan because of fears it didn't have enough time to pass with just one week left in the special session.
The new restrictions would allow abortions only in surgical facilities and place greater controls on abortion-inducing medications.
The Senate also approved a major transportation bill that diverts nearly $1 billion a year from the state's reserve fund to help ease the state's road building and maintenance crisis under the crush of a rapidly expanding population.
The abortion measures stirred up the most passionate floor debate so far in the 30-day special session. Although Democrats had blocked the measures in the regular session, Republicans had pressured Gov. Rick Perry to put them on the agenda of the special session when Democrat's voting power would be diluted.
Before the 20-10 vote, Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, leader of the Senate Democrats, said the Tuesday's vote and previous efforts to restrict abortions "are a back-door effort to overturn something that has been established law for decades."
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, was the only Democrat to join the chamber's 19 Republicans supporting the bill, saying his vote was driven by his Catholic faith.
"There's a culture of death in this country and we don't address it, Democrats and Republicans alike," Lucio said.
According to state figures, about 78,000 abortions are performed in Texas every year.
Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said his bill would improve medical care for women, but he also opened the debate by calling the bill the "pro-life" measure of the session. He later said. "I believe the number of abortions we have in Texas is way too high."
Hegar said he hopes the House would consider putting the 20-week restriction back in the bill, but Senate Republicans were unsure if that would happen with the session so close to its end. Abortion rights activists say his plan would force most Texas abortion clinics to close, resulting in some women seeking unsafe, back-alley procedures.
"This raises the standard of care, protects life," Hegar said.
But in a pointed line of questioning, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, accused Hegar, who is running for statewide office as comptroller in 2014, of pushing the bill to satisfy Republican primary voters.
"This isn't about women," Davis said. "This is about political primaries ... and feeding them red meat."
Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, dismissed the political criticism, saying Republicans just want abortion providers to "tell the truth" about the procedure.
"Both sides," Deuell said, "have been throwing red meat."
Forcing abortion clinics to qualify as ambulatory surgical centers would mandate that doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Hegar said every abortion clinic currently operating in Texas could satisfy that geographic requirement.
Critics complain that because many private or religious hospitals won't grant privileges to doctors who perform abortions, the bill would effectively shut down clinics in large areas of the state.
The Senate passed the road-building measure with a unanimous vote. If approved by the House, it would go before voters statewide in November as a constitutional amendment.
Texas transportation leaders have told lawmakers the state needs about $4 billion more per year for building and maintaining roads in one of the fastest-growing states in the country.
The Senate plan would cover only a fraction of what the state needs by siphoning oil and gas revenue taxes that are now sent to the state's Rainy Day Fund.
The Texas Department of Transportation manages nearly 200 million miles of roads and more than 50,000 bridges. The agency largely relies on a 20-cents-a-gallon fuel tax that hasn't been raised since 1991.
Lawmakers have struggled with transportation funding for years and have been reluctant to raises taxes or fees in a Legislature controlled by a Republican majority for a decade. Instead, the state has turned to a system of borrowing that has added billions to the state's long-term debt.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said the roads fund is the start of a pay-as-you spending philosophy, but only a partial fix to a long-term problem. Eltife has warned fellow Republicans they should consider taxes for roads and said more money will be needed in the future.
"As politicians, we don't need to go around thumping our chests saying we've fixed the transportation problem," Eltife said.
The transportation vote was peppered with debate over keeping a $6 billion minimum in the reserve fund. Tea party conservatives led by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, argued it is a responsible savings level to protect the state's credit rating and keep cash on hand in case of an emergency, such a major hurricane hitting the Texas coast.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
6/19/2013 1:00:47 AM (GMT -4:00)