Determined to stop a vote that would implement stringent abortion restrictions, State Senator Wendy Davis decided to filibuster. As the day went on, tens of thousands in Texas and around the country became riveted by her dramatic stand.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, holds up two fingers to cast a no vote to bring an abortion bill to the floor early for debate, Monday, June 24, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis committed herself to an all-day filibuster Tuesday in an extraordinary one-woman effort to block the Texas Senate from passing one of the country’s most stringent abortion policies.
Davis began her filibuster just past 11 a.m. local time, reading aloud testimonies from women and doctors who would be affected by the legislation. By midnight, tens of thousands were riveted by the senator’s passionate effort to stop Republicans from passing Senate Bill 5.
In order for the filibuster to succeed, Davis was to speak until midnight—the deadline for the end of a 30-day special session, which was called by Gov. Rick Perry to address various bills, including funding for major transportation projects.
“I’m rising on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans who have been ignored,” Davis said at the start of the day.
By late evening, #StandWithWendy was trending worldwide on Twitter. President Obama tweeted:
Something special is happening in Austin tonight: http://t.co/RpbnCbO6zw#StandWithWendy— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 26, 2013
The Texas Tribunelivestream of Davis’ filibuster topped 100,000 viewers online as the midnight deadline neared. The building was packed with chanting supporters and more were gathered outside the statehouse.
Davis wore running shoes with her suit. If her physical energy was flagging by late evening, her verbal skills were only sharper. “Lawmakers, either get out of the vagina business or go to medical school,” she said.
The local CBS affiliate explained the constraints:
Davis must speak continuously—and stay on topic—the entire time. She is not allowed to lean against something for support. And she will not be able to stop or take a break, not even for meals or the restroom, during the entire 13-hour ordeal. But, if she can be successful in running down the clock, it is the only way for Democrats to block the vote.
The Texas State House had voted Monday, 97-33, to pass a proposal that would ban abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy, and would close 37 of the 42 Texas clinics that perform abortions. The bill also requires doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and would require clinics to upgrade their facility classifications to ambulatory surgical centers. The bill, introduced by Republican State Congresswoman Jodie Laubenberg, was likely to be signed by Gov. Perry if it passed the House and Senate.
“It’s problematic that [the bill is] under the guise of being protective of women’s health when it will do the opposite,” Lisa Maatz, vice president for government relations at the American Association of University Women, told MSNBC on Monday.
During Tuesday’s filibuster, Davis questioned the motivation behind the legislation. ”What purpose does this bill serve?” she asked. “And could it be, might it just be a desire to limit women’s access to safe, healthy, legal, constitutionally-protected abortions in the state of Texas?”
Republican Sen. Bob Deull, who helped write the bill, responded to Davis, saying, “The intent of this bill by the people that helped write it, and I’m one of them, is to increase safety.” He questioned whether Davis felt the filibuster and “the traditions of the Texas Senate” were more important than women’s safety.
Her filibuster foundered on a procedural issue: whether her comments were sufficiently “germane.” First, Davis was interrupted by State Sen. Robert Nichols, who argued Davis had gone off-topic when discussing the budget. Davis was allowed to resume on a different topic, but was stopped again a minute later by Nichols while she spoke about alternatives to abortion. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ruled that as long as Davis was still speaking about abortion, her filibuster could continue.
Before the midnight deadline, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sustained a third point of order over the germaneness of discussing the impact of the 2011 abortion sonogram law in Texas. He ruled to end the filibuster and called for a vote. At that, protesters in the gallery erupted with shouts and chants of, “Let her speak!”
Lawmakers questioned points of order as the clock ticked down, and many of Davis’ colleagues argued against the attempts to end her filibuster. State Senator Kirk Watson, leader of the Senate Democrats, moved to overrule Dewhurst’s ruling, arguing the three points of order held against Davis were not valid.
At one point in the night, State Senator Leticia Van De Putte, who arrived in the afternoon after spending the morning at her father’s funeral, challenged Republican leaders at the podium who did not recognize one of her attempts to speak: “At what point does a female senator need to raise her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?”
Finally a vote was taken—but more than a half-hour after the supposed deadline, it was unclear whether in fact the bill had passed. The roll call had been interrupted and drowned out by protestors, and no one in the chamber seemed certain if the vote had been completed in time. Supporters of the bill cheered and opponents shouted, “Shame!”
Texas Tribune’s Becca Aaronson reported a Senate timestamp showed the final vote approving SB5, 17-12, was taken at 12:02 a.m—two minutes past the deadline. But the Texas Senate website released a statement announcing SB5 had passed. Nearly three hours after disputes and meetings inside the Senate offices, state senators confirmed to the that the vote was invalid. Senators returned to the floor shortly after to make the final announcement.
“Senate Bill 5 cannot be signed in the presence of the Senate at this time and therefore cannot be enrolled,” Dewhurt said.
He concluded, “It’s been fun…see you soon.”
Republicans’ efforts to fight back on Davis’ filibuster and the results of the final midnight vote could come at a high cost: Davis’ determination, the dramatic arguments, and the last-minute ramming through of the vote all provided powerful ammunition in portraying a continuing GOP war on women.
Davis, who was elected to the state Senate in 2008, was one of the legislators targeted by Texas Republicans in 2011 through redistricting—an effort that failed, thanks to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (Yes, that’s the section that was undercut Tuesday morning by the Supreme Court.)
Earlier this month, Davis spoke with MSNBC about the Republican-led redistricting effort that could have cost her her seat in the state Senate. Davis represents a largely minority district in Texas. She’s a single mom and was herself raised by a single mom.
“I have a story that’s very similar to so many people that I see struggling in the district that I represent,” Davis said.