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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear