Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) called them an “unruly mob,” but last night with just minutes to go, hundreds of Texas women finished out a filibuster started 11 hours earlier by Sen. Wendy Davis (D), preventing a final vote from taking place on a massive anti-abortion bill by literally shouting it to death as the special session ended.
S.B. 5 would have forced all but five of the state’s abortion clinics to close by 2014, and would have banned all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy without exception for rape or incest. Demonstrators spent days stacking the Texas legislature as final authorization neared, and it all came down to whether Republicans could ram it through before midnight Wednesday.
It initially appeared that the GOP succeeded; even The Associated Press reported that they had. But what happened Tuesday night was a far stranger thing than a simple up or down vote.
After Republicans called three points of order on Davis, citing her for wearing a back brace and allegedly going “off topic” by mentioning sonograms and Planned Parenthood, it looked like passage was all but certain. A furious debate about technicalities in Roberts Rules of Order ensued as Davis remained standing, a condition of carrying the filibuster.
With just under 15 minutes to go before midnight, Sen. Leticia Van De Putte (D) rose with a point of order that was initially ignored by the House speaker in favor of a male Republican’s point. But Van De Putte, who left from planning her father’s funeral to be in the legislature Tuesday night, refused to sit down and walk away.
When she was finally recognized for a parliamentary inquiry moments later, she uttered the words that effectively sealed the fate of S.B. 5. “Mr. President, parliamentary inquiry,” Van De Putte said. “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
The chamber gallery, full of hundreds of pro-choice demonstrators wearing burnt orange, erupted in screams and cheers. Seconds later, the thunderous cries began echoing throughout the whole Capitol as thousands outside the gallery learned what was happening, sending cheers down the three-story line of protesters waiting to get into the Senate chamber. It wasn’t the crowd’s first outburst, either — Dewhurst openly threatened earlier in the evening to “clear the gallery” if the crowd became noisy again — but protesters just kept shouting even after police began taking them out of the chamber.
Online, over 165,000 people were watching the official live stream from the Texas Senate as protesters spent the rest of the special session literally screaming the bill to death, causing such a cacophony in the Senate that even when Republicans rushed to the front to pass the vote before midnight, some senators said they weren’t sure what they were voting on.
The Senate’s official timekeeper initially placed the vote as taking place just minutes after midnight on June 26, but then the official record was amended to make it appear the vote passed just before, on June 25. For the next two hours, confusion dominated online reports as headlines came galloping in announcing a Republican victory. The shouting and chanting continued for hours in the Capitol rotunda and out on the front lawn until Davis emerged and told the crowd that it appeared the bill had indeed failed.
Dewhurst confirmed Davis’s assessment just after 3 a.m., according to The Austin American Statesman, telling reporters that it failed because “an unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics, disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies.” He added from the floor of the Senate: “It’s been fun, but, uh, see you soon.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who’s said he wants to completely revoke the right to abortion, could technically call another special session right away and set Republicans to work on whatever legislation he deems to be an “emergency.” If he does, it’s not clear that Democrats will be able to stop the bill from passage, even if they stage another filibuster.
Still, on the other side of the aisle, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa seemed pleased with the results, sending a mass email declaring victory even before the official time of Wednesday’s vote was nailed down. “We don’t know what will happen by the morning, and we don’t know yet if this bill has passed,” he wrote. “But no matter what happens, we have already won. Texas will never be the same again.”
[Photo: Courtesy, Elisabeth Donoghue.]