US politics from outside the beltway

RSS

Texan senate breaks own rules in failed attempt to pass anti-abortion bill

"This is what democracy looks like".

New Statesman
The Texas Capitol. Photograph: Flickr/tex1sam, CC-BY

There's confusion in Texas this morning, after a marathon filibuster speech aimed at preventing the passage of restrictive abortion laws was seemingly ignored by the state senate leadership. Democratic senator Wendy Davis spoke for 11 hours before being interrupted, but colleagues picked up the baton and continued the filibuster until midnight, when the legislative session should have ended. Instead, it appears that the Republican leadership of the legislature is attempting to use a mixture of twisted rules and misdirection to claim that the law passed anyway.

Senate Bill 5, the act in question, would completely ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation in the state, with no exceptions even in cases of rape or incest, and it requires two in-person visits with a doctor before an abortion can be provided. Moreover, it imposes stringent requirements on the doctors and clinics offering the service. Physicians must have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles from where the abortion is performed which provides OB/GYN services. In practice, that will shut a huge number of clinics, particularly in rural areas, and force doctors to jump through yet more hoops to provide abortions. Finally, the bill requires every abortion provider to be licensed as an ambulatory surgical centre, a hugely expensive and cumbersome requirement; Planned Parenthood estimates that that license alone could cost well over $1m to obtain, and render all but five clinics in the state unsustainable.

Against that background, the Democratic minority of the Texan senate used all the legislative tricks at the disposal. At the centre of the fightback was Senator Wendy Davis, a 50-year-old lawyer from Fort Worth, and her attempt to filibuster the law. Due to the procedure under which the legislation was being passed, any vote had to happen before midnight local time; Davis delayed that vote for 10 hours and 45 minutes, but eventually fell prey to the senate's "three-strike" rule, requiring her to only cover topics "germane" to the bill.

Her first warning was issued for a discussion of Planned Parenthood's budget. Her second warning wasn't for deviation, but for violation of the convention that filibusters be made unaided and unassisted – she had received help from a fellow senator to put on a back brace seven hours in. That point of order went to a vote, which split down party lines. Finally, at 10:07 local time, Donna Campbell, the Republican senator for San Antonio, called a third point of order when Davis began discussing the impact of a 2011 Texan law requiring sonograms before abortions. At that point, with three strikes, a simple majority vote was all that was needed to end the filibuster.

With less than two hours to go, Democrats began using other tactics to push the vote past the midnight deadline. Senator Kirk Watson filed an appeal against the Republican Lieutenant Governor's decision to sustain the third point of order; Senator Leticia Van de Putte asked for a run-down of the reasons for all three points of order; and eventually, decorum broke down entirely, with Senators from both parties openly speaking over each other. "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?", asked Van de Putte in a moment of clear frustration.

In the end, it came down to the crowd. Cheering erupted with a quarter of an hour to go until the deadline, drowning out all other discussion. It intensified as the clock ticked down, and for a brief moment it looked like it had won the fight. Voting had started before midnight, but finished after; the last two questions were asked on 26 June, a fact clearly recorded on the legislature's website. Chants of "this is what democracy looks like" broke out.

But then it was the Republicans' turn to fight. Firstly the legislature's website went down. When it came back up, the timestamps had been altered to record all four votes as occurring on 25 June. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst told the AP that voting began just before midnight, leading the agency to report that the GOP had passed the bill, even as the assembled crowds were still celebrating their victory in preventing it.

As things stand, the Republican leadership of the legislature is acting as though the case is closed. The bill is being passed to Governor Rick Perry to be signed into law, and the assembled protestors outside the capitol are being forcibly dispersed. This is what democracy looks like, 2013 USA style.

That was fast. It took an hour of confusion, with both sides insisting their version of events were accurate, before the cold evidence seen by the 180,000 people watching the live-stream won out. Dewhurst reversed his posistion, and at 1:47am AP reported his declaration that the vote came too late to pass. The attempt to steal the vote nearly succeeded, and may well have done so if it weren't for the massive attention fostered on the bill by social media and campaign groups. Even while the protestors were being evicted, CNN was reporting on the calorie count of blueberry muffins. It's not as bad as it felt an hour ago; but damning nonetheless.