AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas House Republicans are fighting among themselves over abortion language contained within a major, omnibus health care reform bill - a clash that has delayed the measure and could even ultimately derail it as a special legislative session runs short on time.
The GOP controls 101 of the 150 House seats, and its members met Tuesday to discuss Senate Bill 7, which includes changes to Medicaid and calls for forming health care cooperatives and the privatization of health programs in South Texas. What was supposed to have been a short discussion lasted close to 45 minutes, and ultimately delayed the start of the House's afternoon session.
"It was 1 of the longest meetings we've had," Carrie Simmons, chief of staff for the caucus, said Wednesday.
At issue is the bill's language on fetal abnormality abortions. As approved by the House, the bill banned state funding for hospital districts that finance abortions except in cases where the life or overall health of the mother is at risk. A conference committee reconciling that version with one passed by the Senate added a second exception in those cases where a fetus has a severe abnormality.
A group of lawmakers led by Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is worried the language on fetal abnormalities is too broad, however.
"We want to make the language as tight and as narrow as we can," Hughes said, adding that he had spoken with two pediatricians who expressed concern that, as the bill stands, it could allow for abortions of children with a variety of conditions, including Down syndrome.
But the bill's author, Richmond Republican Rep. John Zerwas, said its current language leaves determination of fetal abnormalities up to doctors. Himself a physician, Zerwas said Hughes is holding out for a list of specific ailments that would allow abortions to be performed and, "I don't think lists like that are ever complete."
Hughes would not say if he wants an ailment list, only that "we're taking it seriously. There's a lot at stake."
The Legislative Budget Board says the entire bill could save Texas $467 million, almost two-thirds of that coming from Medicaid, which is run jointly by the state and federal government.
The House next reconvenes Friday, but the Senate could vote to pass the conference committee version of the bill before then, meaning that the House couldn't make further changes without throwing the measure out and starting from scratch. The special legislative session is scheduled to end June 29.
"Our back could be up against the wall," Zerwas said. "I'm a little concerned that we're running out of time here."
Zerwas said "a fairly sizeable" group of Republicans has sided with Hughes, though a formal count was not taken during the caucus meeting.
"They're willing to tank this whole bill because of this difference of opinion on this language and it is totally irresponsible in my opinion," he said. "This is happening when what could really be historic legislation in terms of its pro-life amendments has a chance to pass."
Democrats opposed the bill during the regular session and continue to oppose it, said Jessica Farrar, leader of the House Democratic Caucus.
"You've got a Republican supermajority. They're in a tug of war with themselves," Farrar said, though she would not discuss whether her colleagues may attempt stall tactics to tie up the health care reform bill as the end of the session looms.
But Hughes said there is time for the conference committee to include more-narrow language on abnormality abortions. If that doesn't happen, he said, "we've got more than enough Republican votes to defeat it."
"I know what Dr. Zerwas means by the language," Hughes said, "but he's not going to be there when these little babies are aborted
The leader of the Texas House Republican Caucus admitted Wednesday that he's been missing work while on a family vacation in the Bahamas, even as the chamber struggles to make quorum during the Legislature's special session.
Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he has "been absent this week due to a family gathering that was scheduled months ago, well in advance of the special session being called."
The special session is scheduled to run through June 29.
"This gathering has great personal significance for my family and I could not cancel our plans," Taylor, an avid surfer who previously has publicly sung the praises of his hobby, said in a statement.
"The Republican Caucus is functioning just fine under the capable hands of our Vice Chairman, Myra Crownover, as called for under the Caucus by-laws," his statement said.
Taylor's chief of staff, Cari Christman, said he planned to be back in Austin on Friday. Taylor said he had not sought per diem reimbursement for the days when the House was in session but he was absent.
"All I can say is that Democrats are here, and we're working hard to protect the people of Texas against Perry's politically driven agenda," said Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, heads the House Democratic Caucus, referring to Gov. Rick Perry, who decides what matters lawmakers can consider during the special session.
The Texas Senate passed its own version of a wind insurance bill, guaranteeing it will go to a conference committee with the House.
Lawmakers in the two chambers have very different ideas about how change the Texas Wind Insurance Association, the organization that proves insurance to hurricane-prone areas.
The association is not in a position to pay policyholders should a hurricane hit the Texas coast. Gov. Rick Perry named wind storm insurance to the special legislative session to get a new organization in place before a hurricane hits.
Republican Sen. John Carona said he was ready to fight for his version of the bill, which allows greater latitude for suing the association if it fails to properly pay policyholders. The House version is more restrictive.
Senators voted to create a non-partisan civilian commission to redraw Congressional districts.
The measure passed 16-13 and now goes to the House for consideration.
Currently lawmakers draw Congressional districts every ten years, usually along partisan lines. Every new map since 1970 has ended up in federal court.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth's bill would have four members appointed by House Democrats and Republicans and four members appointed by a bipartisan Senate group. A ninth, non-voting member would chair the commission, which would draw the maps.
The only person to speak against the bill was Republican Sen. Craig Estes who argued the bill violates the Texas Constitution.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"Our back could be up against the wall, I'm a little concerned that we're running out of time here." Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, on passing a necessary fiscal matters bill by June 29.