Texas House Republicans are fighting among themselves over language referring to abortions that is contained in a major health care reform bill -- a clash that has delayed the measure and could even derail it as a special legislative session runs short on time.
At issue is the bill's language about abortions in cases of fetal abnormality. 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.
"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.
The bill's author, Richmond Republican Rep. John Zerwas, said the bill's current language leaves determination of fetal abnormalities up to doctors.
Republicans control 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 one of the longest meetings we've had," Carrie Simmons, chief of staff for the caucus, said Wednesday.
Zerwas, himself a physician, 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."
According to the Legislative Budget Board, 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 still 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 stalling 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. 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."