AUSTIN, Texas — More than 1,900 people signed up to testify about proposed abortion restrictions before a Texas House committee on Tuesday, but rules imposed by the panel's top Republican mean no more than 140 members of the public would get a chance to speak.
State Rep. Byron Cook imposed an eight-hour limit on the hearing, with each person getting just three minutes before the committee, and he chose a room with only 67 seats. The restrictions come after a similar hearing two weeks ago turned into a 12-hour marathon when 700 protesters slowed the passage of the bill in the first special session. A Democratic filibuster and an angry crowd stopped the bill from becoming law a few days later leading GOP Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature back for a second special session.
Democrats questioned Cook about why he chose such a small room, more than a third of which was reserved for staff, lawmakers and media.
"We wanted to ensure the maximum security for every person who is here," the Corsicana Republican said. Cook also said he was limiting testimony because hundreds of people had already testified during the regular and first special sessions.
Reps. Jessica Farrar and Sylvester Turner, both Houston Democrats, asked Cook to schedule additional hearings to allow everyone a chance to speak, but Cook refused. After Democrats successfully ran out the clock of the first special session, Republicans appeared to set on passing the measure as quickly as possible in the new 30-day special session.
Live video of the hearing was fed into nine other hearing rooms, where demonstrators filled up more than 1,200 additional seats and overflowed into hallways. They appeared to be equally split between supporters of the bill wearing blue and opponents wearing orange.
House Bill 2 would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require that the procedure be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, mandate that doctors who perform abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and that even pill-induced abortions must take place in a surgical center.
Rep. Jody Laubenberg, R-Parker, insisted the bill is intended "to protect the health and safety of every woman who undergoes an abortion." Under questioning from Farrar, she refused to answer whether the state had any data to show that women needed the additional regulations.
Only five out of 42 clinics in Texas qualify as ambulatory surgical centers and they are located only in major metropolitan areas. Other Republicans have acknowledged that the ultimate goal is to shutter abortion clinics.