If you don’t know what’s happening in Austin right now, then chances are you haven’t opened Twitter in the last few hours. The internet practically exploded last night, as protesters in the public gallery of the Texas State Senate unleashed a pandemonium of screaming in support of the heroic Wendy Davis, a state senator who was on her feet speaking for ten hours. Davis had been working to filibuster a particularly horrific anti-abortion bill which would limit access to abortion-causing pills and reduce the number of clinics in the state effectively to just five.
After a chaotic few hours of waiting, it now looks certain that the bill, known as SB5, has indeed been killed – and by a matter of moments. The official record of the vote is that it took place at 12:03 – three minutes past the time when the special session closed. Under Texas law, that means it didn’t pass.
If this sounds like a bit of a procedural drama, it was. But it was an extremely dramatic one, especially for the last fifteen minutes, and if there’s anything the internet loves, it’s a good melodrama – just look at the tweets-per-minute data of the event.
Republicans in the chamber at first claimed victory, and the Associated Press reported that the vote had passed. But the internet raised a hue and cry: when the result was first posted, the date-stamp was today’s; it was quickly changed, but not fast enough that the internet missed it. The two screencaps are here.
The senators were recalled to the chamber for an emergency caucus, and the screen-caps above were shown in the chamber. Moments ago, after an agonisingly long discussion, the Lt. Governor of Texas, David Dewhurst, announced that the vote had been out of time and invalid – the filibuster was successful. Few people have seen politics this electrifying in living memory. More than 170 thousand people were watching the live-stream of the chamber by midnight, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night on the east coast.
This is the moment when, with fifteen minutes to go before midnight, Davis’ colleague, senator Leticia Van De Putte, struggling to be heard, asked what a female senator had to do to be heard over her male colleagues; causing the cheering to begin from the public gallery. The cheering continued, drowning out the attempts of the chamber to vote, until after midnight.
A filibuster is famous for being at the heart of some of the most exciting moments of US political history. It is when a politician attempts to run out the clock on a debate, by speaking for a prolonged amount of time in order to prevent a vote on a particular topic. In Washington today, however, moments these are rare. Just the threat of a filibuster – like that of a Presidential veto – is usually enough to upset the course of a bill these days, though earlier this year libertarian Senator Rand Paul filibustered for thirteen hours to protest about the President’s drone policies.
So what happens next? Once the confusion calms down – this was the scene inside the Senate chamber just a few moments before the emergency session announced that the bill had not passed – Republicans may try to mount a legal challenge. Some supporters of SB5 are already saying that they will try to re-introduce the bill at the next special senate. The democratic body of Texas was overruled last night not by debate or campaigning, or even, in the end, by the heroic Senator Davis, but by a grass-roots of people in the public gallery. It was not politics by the books; it was politics at its most raw, and the Republicans will respond.
The exciting part is probably over. But it has been an unforgettable night.