After more than a month of negotiations between House and Senate leaders, it looks like the path has been cleared for the sonogram bill to become law. While both chambers have passed a version of the measure, which requires a woman to have a sonogram before she has an abortion, the provision was held up thanks to differences between the two versions and a political staring contest between lawmakers. But Tuesday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst referred the House version of the bill to the Senate State Affairs committee. The House version will likely get some tweaks from the senators, but its biggest difference with the Senate version—a provision requiring at least 24 hours between a woman’s sonogram and her abortion procedure—will almost definitely remain. The only caveat? It appears that Sen. Carlos Uresti’s district could get a special exemption.
You might have thought, since each chamber passed some version of the bill, that the measure was already headed straight for the governor’s desk. But while the Senate passed Sen. Dan Patrick’s version of the bill in February, the House didn’t pick up the same bill. Instead House members passed a different version from Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville. Miller’s version did not include an exemption for rape and incest and required the sonogram be performed at least 24 hours ahead of time—compared with a two-hour requirement in the Senate version. But while both sides supported some form of the bill, Miller was determined to keep the 24-hour provision. That measure helps make the bill one of the more stringent in the country.
It was also a problem for pro-life senators. The Senate requires a two-thirds vote to consider almost any piece of legislation. While they had already passed Patrick’s version of the bill, the upper chamber would still need two-thirds to bring up the new Miller bill. With the 24-hour provision, it wasn’t clear that the Senate had enough support to pass the House version. Everything rested on Sen. Uresti.
Uresti objected to the 24-hour provision and had successfully whittled it down to two hours in the Senate version. He argued that the measure effectively made getting an abortion a two-day affair, and created a particular hardship for women in rural areas. While Texas already has a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, that period can begin when a woman calls to make an appointment. The new provision heightens those 24 hours, as a woman must find a way to get a sonogram and then wait. Someone seeking an abortion might have to drive hours to get a sonogram and then stay overnight for the abortion the next day. Or they could drive back and forth.
“Because of the vast size of my district and the limited availability of medical facilities, it was also imperative to shorten the waiting period requirement to two hours to avoid unnecessary hardships on my constituents,” the senator said in a statement after the Senate version passed. Uresti’s district, which covers 23 counties over 55,000 square miles near the border, is home to many poor and rural communities.
But Uresti’s concerns may not extend to the rest of the state. Miller remains adamant that he won’t change the 24 hour measure, calling it “the meat of the bill”—but he will make an exception. ”I think there’s one senator who would like to have his senate district carved out,” Miller told me, “and I may try to accommodate that.”
When asked whether he would only support a bill with a blanket two hour policy or if he would settle for a district exemption, Uresti offered a statement through his spokesperson. ”I will look at any language that maintains the two hour waiting period for the women in my district,” Uresti said. The last three words are crucial—and with them, Uresti could effectively pave the way for Texas to have a strict mandatory sonogram bill.
Given that the bill has now been referred to the Senate State Affairs committee, it’s likely safe to assume some sort of agreement has been reached. Kyleen Wright, who heads the Texans for Life Coalition, said Monday that both sides would try to come to an agreement before the bill got referred. “The plan is to have all of that ironed out before it’s picked up in the Senate,” she said.
There’s been significant pressure for the Republican-dominated Legislature to pass a sonogram bill—and in the House the stakes were particularly high. Before the session began, House Speaker Joe Straus faced bitter opposition, including accusations that he was an abortion-rights advocate masquerading as a conservative. The heads of two major pro-life groups, the Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life, both signed a letter from conservative leaders asking members to dump Straus in favor of a more hard-right leader.
Tensions from the Speaker’s race remain evident. Sen. Patrick had injected himself in the House fight—and found his version of the sonogram bill snubbed. Instead Miller, who vocally supported Straus, got to carry a different version. But neither chamber wanted to accept the other’s bill. No one knew if the other version could get support in the other chamber. Miller is blunt about it. “It’s obvious to me that I can’t pass the Senate bill over here,” he said. “Most of the House members don’t like it.”
“I think there is a competition—I’m calling it a friendly competition—between the two chambers,” said Joe Pojman of Texas Alliance for Life.
But some pro-life Republicans who supported Straus were getting nervous. “They’re dead if this thing doesn’t pass,” one conservative Republican told me. The measure was already a major campaign issue, and Gov. Rick Perry designated it an emergency item. Given the Republican super-majority in the House, it would look bad for the conservative Republicans if the bill didn’t pass. One anti-Straus site thought the delay was part of a conspiracy by the speaker to kill the bill.
Wright with Texans for Life was one of Straus’ biggest supporters during the fight, and acknowledges the pressure. “This is a defining issue for the Republican primary voter, as far as the Straus House,” she said, calling the sonogram effort ”a total vindication of both the speaker and my endorsement of him.”
Now it appears some of that pressure has subsided. While the House version still has to pass through the Senate, Pojman and other pro-life leaders now say Straus was committed to the bill. Miller says he’s busy working on “a carve out for the rape, incest and fetal abnormalities” that weren’t exempted in the House version. And with negotiations underway, it looks quite likely that one of the most stringent anti-abortion measures will get through. That will make many Republicans breathe easier. And they may have a Democrat to thank for it.