Austin, TX — In a stunning turn of events early Wednesday, Republican leaders in the Texas Senate conceded that hotly contested abortion legislation had not been approved as they had earlier claimed.
The bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and require that all procedures take place in a surgical center.
It was a top priority for Republican legislative leaders, and experts estimate that it could lead to closure of 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics.
In a chaotic scene that captured national attention, a filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, designed to derail the bill was thwarted a couple hours short of her goal. The special legislative session was scheduled to end at midnight, and Davis had hoped to hold the floor until then, preventing a vote by the majority GOP.
Davis was able to claim victory around 3 a.m., after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst finally acknowledged that the votes had actually come after the midnight deadline.
The fate of the bill had remained in question for three hours after a hurried on the Senate floor, which was interrupted and delayed by a gallery of supporters who clapped, screamed and chanted for several minutes as the deadline approached.
Asked if the filibuster had succeeded, Davis said: "Well, I guess the proof is in the pudding and the pudding tastes awfully good right now."
She told reporters that she was "tired but really happy." Her filibuster began at 11:18 a.m. Tuesday, and she was not allowed to sit, lean or leave the floor if she wanted to keep it alive.
After Dewhurst ruled that Davis had committed three violations and her filibuster was over, Democrats including Austin’s Kirk Watson and Dallas’ Royce West repeatedly raised parlimentary questions in an attempt to run out the clock. Finally, after those motions were exhausted, Dewhurst called for a vote.
At that point, the gallery took over.
Finally, Republicans insisted that they began a vote on the abortion bill just before midnight and it had passed.
Democrats contended the vote was not final before midnight, and therefore should not be allowed to stand. They vowed a legal fight to overturn it.
Finally, around 3 a.m., senators emerged from a closed-door meeting to announce that Republican leaders had agreed: The bill was not passed in accordance with Senate rules.
Dewhurst explained briefly in a prepared statement that the bill would not be forwarded to the governor, who was prepared to sign it.
“It’s been fun, but see you soon,” Dewhurst said.
The confusion peaked around midnight, as boisterous Davis supporters disrupting proceedings with cheers and catcalls from the public galleries above the Senate floor.
As it became clear that Republicans were claiming that a vote had been taken in time, Davis’ supporters chanted “shame, shame, shame.” State troopers were called in to clear the galleries, and at least one arrest was reported.
Even if the abortion bill had been settled, there is still significant unfinished business in the Legislature and one or more future specials sessions are possible, if not likely.
The next move in Texas’ ongoing legislative battles is up to Perry. Under state law, the governor gets to set his own timetable — and the agenda — for all special sessions.
Davis clearly was disappointed after her filibuster ended, but said it was “absolutely” worth it.
In the final hours of what amounted to a nearly 13-hour filibuster, she was buoyed by everything from a nod from President Barack Obama to moral support from thousands of well-wishers at the Capitol as well as online.
The target of Davis and her allies was a comprehensive abortion bill pushed by Republicans that she assailed as a “raw abuse of power” by Perry and the GOP.
Her filibuster — which at one point drew close to 200,000 viewers to the Texas Tribune’s live stream on YouTube — became a social media sensation.
It also attracted people in person in droves. Long lines snaked from outside the capitol and along the staircases as thousands of spectators waited their turn to get into the third-floor Senate gallery. The filibuster was live-streamed by more than 200 organizations, including the New York Post, and captured notice from the White House
“Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” President Obama said in a tweet.
The legislative drama escalated early in the evening after the Senate voted 17-11 to cite Davis for a second violation of the rules governing filibusters. A third violation would likely end the filibuster.
The 11th-hour filibuster endangered not only the abortion bill but two other measures behind it — a major transportation funding measure and a juvenile justice bill creating a new punishment option for 17-year-old capital murder defendants.
Perry called for enactment of all three of the measures during the special session and appeared likely to call a second special session if they failed to survive.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office, said it was “too early to tell” whether or when Perry would call a special session when asked about the governor’s plans
Republicans turned to the rule book in their efforts to rescue a top GOP priority, hoping to dislodge Davis under a three-strikes-and-you’re-out regimen governing filibusters. Filibustering senators, among other things, are forbidden to sit or lean on their desk.
Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, upheld an initial point of order that Davis’ comments on the landmark Roe. v. Wade abortion decision of 1973 were not germane to the actual bill under consideration by the Legislature.
The second came after Dewhurst called for a Senate vote to determine if a violation occurred when Sen. Rodney Davis, D-Houston, assisted Davis in putting on a back brace during a lull in the proceedings.
The ruling was upheld in a party line vote after an emotional debate.
The third and final strike came on a challenge that Davis’ discussion of sonograms wasn’t germane to the topic. Dewhurst ruled it wasn’t.
In the chambers, Davis’ supporters were chanting: “Let her speak!”
“We need to slow down right this minute and recognize what this issue is doing to this body,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Don’t let this be a partisan vote. She did not lean, she did not sit, she’s been an outstanding state senator. Do what is the greater good and let’s finish this debate honorably.”
Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he raised the point of order because “a filibuster is an endurance contest and it’s to be made unaided and unassisted.” But he expressed “enormous respect” for Davis and declared: “The implication that I have anything but the deepest respect for her is frankly out of bounds.”
The 50-year-old Fort Worth Democrat began her talk-a-thon at 11:18 a.m. in what she said would be a non-stop effort to bring down the bill by the time the 83rd Legislature ends its special session at midnight.
“I’m rising up on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans who have been ignored,” Davis said as she began a point-by-point attack on a legislative package that she said would take the state to a “dark place.” She also read personal testimony and statements from health organizations opposed to the measure.
At times, Davis choked with emotion and brushed back tears as she read accounts from Texas women who recounted their personal experiences over abortion.
The bill calls for a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and would impose tighter standards for abortion clinics and doctors who perform the procedures.
Republicans say the measures are designed to protect women from unsafe abortions. Democrats have attacked the provisions as a politically-motivated GOP attempt to close most of the state’s 42 abortion clinics.
Davis entered the chamber shortly after 11 a.m. wearing a long white jacket over a flower print dress and pink Mizuno running shoes. Abortion rights supporters packing the gallery applauded and shouted “Go Wendy” and “Thank you, Wendy.”
Watson, the Senate’s Democratic leader, acknowledged that the issue “is a matter of great passion” but joined Dewhurst in urging spectators to maintain decorum and avoid outbursts.
Davis supporters outside the chamber signaled their support through the day. “We are with you,” tweeted the Texas Democratic Party.
Diana Viviana, a 61-year-old activist from Fort Worth, drove to Austin on Sunday and stayed to watch the filibuster as the abortion bill moved to the Senate after passage in the House. Although she doesn’t live in Davis’ district, she voiced unabashed enthusiasm for the Fort Worth senator.
“I think she could be president of the United States,” she said. “I think she could be anything she wanted to.”
Another Fort Worth resident, self-employed antique dealer Paula Smith, also witnessed the talk-a-thon to display support for what she called a “very important cause.”
“I don’t believe men should decide what women should do with their bodies,” she said. Of Davis, Smith said: “She’s our star.”
Davis in the spotlight
Tuesday’s marathon session in a sense constituted an encore to a filibuster Davis waged at the end of the 2011 regular session to oppose more than $5 billion in education cuts. Her stand against the Republican-backed abortion package is also likely to further stoke her persona as a Democratic candidate for governor or another statewide office.
The Fort Worth attorney, a former city council member, is currently running for re-election in her Tarrant County Senate district but has not ruled out interest in a future statewide race.
Five Republican House members from Tarrant County sought to counter Davis’ filibuster by staging a press conference behind stacks of box filled with 84,610 blanks sheets of paper, which they said represented the number of Texas abortions performed in 2011. The lawmakers said they were responding to a Davis tweet calling on constituents to share their stories “so I can tell it from the Senate floor.”
“It is my hope and prayer that Sen. Davis would recognize all the letters that will never be written due to the tragedy of abortion today,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. Also present were Reps. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.
After the post-midnight chaos, Zedler tweeted: “We had terrorist in the Texas State Senate opposing SB 5.”