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Opponents of Texas abortion restrictions rally at Capitol

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Thousands of opponents of a Texas proposal to tighten abortion restrictions rallied outside the statehouse on Monday, giving a hero’s welcome to Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour speech stalled the measure last week.

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As the Republican-dominated state legislature convened for a second special session on Monday, supporters said they expected the bill would pass this time. With few exceptions, it would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The proposal would also subject abortion clinics to stronger health and safety rules, which the nation’s biggest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, has said could cause all but six of Texas’ 42 abortion centers to close. Republicans have called that an exaggeration.

“A great number of us have felt discouraged about the current state of affairs here,” Davis told the rally as she stood before a huge Texas flag. “Some of us have felt mad. Today is different, though. Don’t you feel it? We feel hope.”

While Democrats have said they may try new delaying tactics, they have given no details, and they are unlikely to be able to filibuster the bill again during the session.

The crowd, many carrying umbrellas for protection from the sun, listened to live music by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and carried signs that said things like, “Wendy for governor,” and “Separate your church from my uterus.”

The political battle in Texas is the latest in a national debate over abortion restrictions. While a dozen states have restricted late-term abortions, Arkansas has banned abortions after 12 weeks and North Dakota as early as six weeks.

Inside the Texas Capitol on Monday, supporters of the measure sang “Amazing Grace” and held a press conference featuring women who said they regretted having abortions. Molly White of Belton, Texas, spoke of how her two abortions caused damage to her cervix and a lifetime of emotional pain.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who sets the agenda for special sessions of the Legislature, called lawmakers back to Austin after Davis staged a filibuster to block the abortion bill in the final day of the first special session.

Republicans managed to stop her talking and voted to pass the bill, but hundreds of bill opponents screamed from the gallery as senators were voting. The disruption helped delay Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst signing the bill and sending it to the governor on time.

If the bill passes, Texas would become the 13th U.S. state to pass a 20-week ban.

“It seems as close to a sure thing as you can get,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, an advocacy group that supports the proposal. But he added, “As we saw during the first special session, until it’s completely done and the process is finished, there are no guarantees. That’s going to motivate both sides to do everything they can to ensure victory.”

On Monday, the state House and Senate each referred the bill to committees, and the House panel was set to meet on Tuesday to consider the measure. The full House and Senate are not scheduled to meet again until July 9.

Special sessions can last up to 30 days. The Texas Legislature typically meets every other year for 140 days, and lawmakers wrapped up their regular session on May 27. Perry called lawmakers back for the first special session that same day, but he did not add abortion legislation to the agenda until June 11. This time, abortion is already on the agenda.

Perry assured attendees at the National Right to Life convention in Dallas last week that the measure would pass this time.

“This is a hard fight,” state Senator Kirk Watson, a Democrat, said at the rally. “There will be setbacks, but there isn’t anything more important.”

Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune