A Bill is Killed; A Star is Born

With all the strange things that happened during Wendy Davis's filibuster, there's one point that has gone almost unnoticed.
Wed June 26, 2013 2:30 pm
Sen. Wendy Davis at the beginning of her filibuster.
Bob Daemmrich

With all the strange and incredible things that happened in the Texas Capitol yesterday, there’s one point that’s gone almost unnoticed. 

It was the biggest day for Texas Democrats in a generation–people did notice that part–and it could easily have never happened. 

Within the past 24 hours or so, the state’s pending abortion bill, which supporters and opponents agreed would severely restrict access to abortion services in Texas, was killed—at least for now. The entire Texas Democratic Party has apparently been reanimated. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, as senators tried to figure out what they had just done—seriously—there were still hundreds of activists packed in the capitol, singing and cheering and, probably, pinching themselves.

And Texas’s long-suffering Democrats should be excited, because for the first time in years they appear to have a realistic shot at winning a statewide executive office in 2014.  Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth, vaulted to national attention yesterday over the course of a long filibuster that will go down in the state history books. She had been widely considered to be thinking about a run for governor before that, but her prospects were daunting: in a state the size of Texas, candidates generally need a lot of money and a lot of name recognition to win a top office. Davis, because of yesterday, suddenly has both–not to mention a lot to talk about on the trail. She is rapidly becoming the most powerful Democrat in the state since Governor Ann Richards, who was elected in 1990 and is the last woman or Democrat to hold that post.

But let’s begin at the beginning. 

At hand was the old workhorse of the culture wars: abortion. On June 11th, Governor Rick Perry added that issue to the list of topics legislators could take up during the 30-day special session that would end June 25th, at midnight. (Per Texas law, the Lege can only deal with issues specified by the governor during a special session.)

The announcement was a blow to pro-choice Texans (who are the  majority in Texas, as in most states). Several abortion restrictions had been proposed during the regular legislative session, which ran from January through May. The Senate had summarily blocked them from being taken up, using its longstanding two-thirds rule. 

The Senate had already decided to scrap the two-thirds rule for the special session, though; that was the first thing that was decided when the special session started (less than an hour after the regular session ended). Any abortion bill would only need a simple majority to be heard in either chamber, and both houses of the Texas Legislature are controlled by Republicans. And the abortion bill that emerged, SB-5, was a doozy. Planned Parenthood warned that it would effectively ban abortions in Texas by forcing the closure of most of the clinics that provide the service–a warning that could hardly be seen as an exaggeration, given that it was  retweeted, proudly, by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. 

That tweet, which became slightly notorious over the past week, came after the Senate passed the bill on June 18, after a  five-hour floor debate (a full hour of which was dedicated to Davis’s questioning the author of the bill, Katy Republican Senator Glenn Hegar). Grassroots organizers, concerned about the few remaining impediments to the bill’s passage, urged opponents of the bill to come testify against it before the House State Affairs committee. And so they did, in droves. Hundreds of people signed up to testify over the course of the 11-hour committee hearing. Just after midnight, about seven hours into testimony, Rep. Byron Cook, a Corsicana Republican, told the crowd that he was only going to allow one more hour of testimony on HB-60, the House companion to SB-5. “The testimony has been impassioned, but it has become repetitive,” Cook  said. The roar of disapproval was so loud that the hearing was briefly paused, and the sound on the livestream was cut out for those watching at home. Ultimately, several more hours of testimony were allowed, but several hundred people who had signed up to testify were denied the opportunity to be heard, and those engaged in the   “citizen filibuster” were left with a sour taste in their mouths–until last night, that is. 

The House passed SB-5 on Monday, June 24, around 11 a.m., following a night of debate that ran past three in the morning. The bill that returned to the Senate was more draconian than the earlier incarnation; it included a “fetal pain” provision that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks.

Still, Senate Republicans had enough votes to pass the bill. Senate Democrats, then, were the last people standing between Perry and the bill, and the only chance they had to block it was via filibuster.

That they pulled it off was astonishing. The Texas Senate’s  filibuster rules are even more draconian than those in, say, the abortion bill at hand. It’s a grueling test of physical endurance: The person giving the filibuster can’t sit, can’t lean, can’t have any food or water, and can’t leave the immediate area around their desks for any reason. 

It’s also a rhetorical high-wire act. The rules say that other senators can raise points of order on a colleague’s filibuster if, for example, they think their colleague is getting help from another senator, or has started talking about something not “germane” to the topic at hand. If three points of order are sustained by the Senate’s presiding officer, the body gets to vote on whether to end the filibuster.

Despite those challenges, Davis sailed through the first five or six hours of her filibuster. She spent much of the time reading testimony from witnesses who hadn’t had a chance to testify during the aforementioned House hearing. That was a smart approach. Not only was she reviewing the many arguments that had been made against the bill, every letter underlined an argument Democrats

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