How Jonathan Stickland Faceplanted on Anti-Abortion Legislation

Most normal, God-fearing Texans spent their Memorial Day weekend barbecuing (indoors), watching Netflix and honoring—if only between kegstands—the fallen.

What did Texas legislators do for Memorial Day weekend, apart from debating whether to cut education benefits for veterans? Bickering about abortion, mostly. An odd sequence of events at the Capitol, culminating in a near-fistfight on the House floor, turned Sunday into a pretty good day for pro-choice activists. (That is, of course, relatively speaking.)

Though one major package of abortion restrictions is likely to win final approval in the next week, another significant anti-abortion initiative is dead and a third could meet the same fate Monday, victim of a legislative logjam in the House.

That’s strange in part because Sunday had been expected to be a day of abortion showdowns, in both chambers. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a loud but hapless champion of conservative principles and himself a former fetus, issued yet another ultimatum to the RINOs: He’d drop an amendment to prevent abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks gestation, if House leadership allowed Senate Bill 575, a held-up effort to ban insurance providers in the state from covering abortions, to move forward.

It was a Mexican standoff—but as it turned out, one in which both bandit’s guns were pointed in the same direction. Stickland and his pro-life allies seem to have gotten very little.

Why did Stickland make the trade? It’s not entirely clear.

If Stickland had gone on to raise the amendment, it likely would have passed—Republican lawmakers find it very difficult to vote against pro-life initiatives, even if they don’t much like how they’ve been offered. Trading a probable win for a tenuous promise that SB 575 would advance seemed like a weak plan.

Whatever he was thinking, Stickland got Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a senior Republican who chairs House State Affairs and has become one of the foremost bête noires of conservatives this session, to agree to vote SB 575 out of committee and push it to the Calendars Committee, which decides what gets heard on the House floor. Stickland withdrew his amendment, and the Health and Humans Services Commission sunset bill, the potential vehicle for the amendment, passed without the pro-life language in it.

Jonathan Stickland - former fetus signStickland had released his hostage. But when SB 575 got to calendars, it face-planted. Three Republicans—Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring), and Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)—voted with the Democrats to prevent the bill from being scheduled for a vote. Davis is a vocally pro-choice Republican, but the other two are very, very not.

It was a surprise, and pro-lifers were absolutely livid. Here’s what Byron Cook told the Texas Tribune:

“My commitment was to get the bill out [of State Affairs], to get it to Calendars,” Cook said. “I did everything I could do. What I can’t do is interfere with other members’ free will to vote their conscience. Everybody should be able to do that. And women sent a clear message that they weren’t comfortable with this legislation, probably weren’t comfortable with us men telling them what to do. And I respect that.”

Stickland and the pro-lifers had been comprehensively defeated. His reaction, naturally, was to confront Cook on the floor, yelling at him. The two men had to be separated. (Stickland’s account of the encounter, in which he is assaulted by a bullying Cook, can be found here.)

Then, near midnight, the Calendars Committee seemed to reverse itself. At a quickly-scheduled meeting, Riddle and Harless switched votes, sending SB 575 to the floor. So the pro-lifers won after all, right? Stickland certainly thought so:

Well, maybe. SB 575 could still pass. Anything is possible. But because it was added to the calendar so late, it seems very possible it will never come to a vote. Tuesday at midnight is the deadline for Senate bills to pass the House. SB 575 has been slotted as the fourth of four items on that day’s major state portion of the House daily calendar. It’s easy to imagine it not making it out by the midnight deadline.

At this point, it’s possible for the Democrats to talk and delay until the calendar is chewed up—that’s what happened with the anti-gay House Bill 4105 a few weeks back. Successful points of order are lethal, because there’s not enough time to send bills back to committee and fix them. And when senior Republicans tack a bill on the end of a calendar like this, especially this close to a deadline, they’re effectively declaring that they don’t really care about it.

Tuesday’s House calendar is packed with potentially complicated and lengthy debates—it could be one of the most fascinating days of the session. On Tuesday, the House will debate the gutting of the Public Integrity Unit—part of the significant amount of postponed business the House didn’t get around to Monday. That’ll eat up a lot of time. Then when we move on to Senate Bill 19, an extremely convoluted and controversial ethics overhaul that will also take a lot of time if debated.

Next up are four items that involve lengthy debates. The only must-pass bill is the first one, the Department of Family Protective Services sunset bill, Senate Bill 206. There’s Senate Bill 9, a proposal to change the spending cap favored by Senate conservatives. Expect a lot of debate there. And then, there’s Senate Bill 11—campus carry. That could well be one of the most heated debates of the session, with a lot of uncertainty about how the House will react to certain provisions.

If lawmakers finish all that, then it’s SB 575’s turn. They could certainly still get around to it, and Tuesday will be a day of high drama on the House floor—must-see TV. But on Sunday morning, it was at least hypothetically possible that two sweeping new abortion restrictions could make it the governor’s desk. Now it seems more likely that neither will. Well-fought, fellows.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 12:09 pm CST
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