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

"This is what democracy looks like".

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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue