AUSTIN, Texas — In a stunning turn of events early Wednesday, Republican leaders in the Texas Senate conceded that hotly contested abortion legislation was not approved as they had earlier claimed.
The bill, expected to be debated all over again in another special legislative session, would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and require that all procedures take place in a surgical center. The bill that was a top priority for Republican legislative leaders, and experts estimate it could lead to the closing of 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics.
In a chaotic scene that captivated national attention, a filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, designed to derail the abortion bill was itself thwarted a couple hours short of her midnight goal late Tuesday. But she was able to claim victory early Wednesday after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s after-hours acknowledgement that the bill was dead. Asked if the filibuster had succeeded, she responded: “Well, I guess the proof is in the pudding and the pudding tastes awfully good right now.”
She told reporters that she was “tired but really happy.”
However, Republicans had insisted that they began a vote on the abortion bill just before midnight and it had passed.
Democrats contended the vote was not final before midnight, and therefore should not be allowed to stand. They vowed a legal fight to overturn it.
Finally, around 3 a.m., senators emerged from a closed-door meeting to announce that Republican leaders had agreed the bill was not passed in accordance with Senate rules.
Dewhurst explained briefly in a prepared statement that the bill will not be forwarded to the governor, who was prepared to sign it. “It’s been fun, but see you soon,” Dewhurst said.
Confusion reigned in the Capitol at midnight with boisterous Davis supporters disrupting proceedings with cheers and catcalls from the public galleries above the Senate floor, which appeared to be mired in gridlock as lawmakers jousted over points of order.
As it became clear that Republicans were making their late push to ram the abortion bill through just after midnight, Davis supporters shouted “shame, shame, shame” at GOP leaders. State troopers were called in to clear the galleries, and at least one arrest was reported.
Even if the abortion bill had been settled, there is still significant unfinished business in the Legislature and one or more future specials sessions are possible, if not likely.
The next move in Texas’ ongoing legislative battles is up to Gov. Rick Perry. Under state law, the governor gets to set his own timetable — and the agenda — for all special sessions.
Davis clearly was disappointed after her filibuster ended, but said it was “absolutely” worth it.
In the final hours of what amounted to a nearly 13-hour filibuster, Davis was buoyed by everything from a nod from President Barack Obama to moral support from thousands of well-wishers at the Capitol as well as online.
The target of Davis and her allies was a comprehensive abortion bill pushed by Republicans that she assailed as a “raw abuse of power” by Perry and the GOP.
Her filibuster — watched by thousands nationwide on the internet — became a social media sensation.
It also drew people in person in droves. Long lines snaked from outside the capitol and along the staircases as thousands of spectators waited their turn to get into the third-floor Senate gallery.
The filibuster was live-streamed by more than 200 organizations, including the New York Post, and captured notice from the White House
“Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” President Obama said in a tweet.
The legislative drama escalated early in the evening after the Senate voted 17-11 to cite Davis for a second violation of the rules governing filibusters. A third violation would likely end the filibuster.
The 11th-hour filibuster endangered not only the abortion bill but two other measures behind it — a major transportation funding measure and a juvenile justice bill creating a new punishment option for 17-year-old capital murder defendants.
Perry called for enactment of all three of the measures during the special session and appeared likely to call a second special session if they failed to survive by the time the first special session ended at midnight.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office, said it was “too early to tell” whether or when Perry would call a special session when asked about the governor’s plans
Republicans turned to the rule book in their efforts to rescue a top GOP priority, hoping to dislodge Davis under a three-strikes-and-you’re-out regimen governing filibusters. Filibustering senators, among other things, are forbidden to sit or lean on their desk.
Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, upheld an initial point of order that Davis’ comments on the landmark Roe. v. Wade abortion decision of 1973 were not germane to the actual bill under consideration by the Legislature.
The second came after Dewhurst called for a Senate vote to determine if a violation occurred when Sen. Rodney Davis, D-Houston, assisted Davis in putting on a back brace during a lull in the proceedings.
The ruling was upheld in a party line vote after an emotional debate.
The third and final strike came on a challenge of Davis’ discussion of sonograms was germane to the topic. Dewhurst ruled it wasn’t.
In the chambers, Davis’ supporters were chanting: “Let her speak!”
It was unclear whether there would be any attempt just before midnight by Republicans to take up the abortion bill.
“We need to slow down right this minute and recognize what this issue is doing to this body,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Don’t let this be a partisan vote. She did not lean, she did not sit, she’s been an outstanding state senator. Do what is the greater good and let’s finish this debate honorably.”
Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he raised the point of order because “a filibuster is an endurance contest and it’s to be made unaided and unassisted.” But he expressed “enormous respect” for Davis and declared: “The implication that I have anything but the deepest respect for her is frankly out of bounds.”
The 50-year-old Fort Worth Democrat began her talk-a-thon at 11:18 a.m. in what she said would be a non-stop effort to bring the down the bill by the time the 83rd Legislature ends its special session at midnight.
“I’m rising up on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans who have been ignored,” Davis said as she began a point-by-point attack on a legislative package that she said would take the state to a “dark place.” She also read personal testimony and statements from health organizations opposed to the measure.
At times, Davis choked with emotion and brushed back tears as she read accounts from Texas women who recounted their personal experiences over abortion.
The bill calls for a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and would impose tighter standards for abortion clinics and doctors who perform the procedures.
Republicans say the measures are designed to protect women from unsafe abortions. Democrats have attacked the provisions as a politically-motivated GOP attempt to close most of the state’s 42 abortion clinics.
Davis entered the chamber shortly after 11 a.m. wearing a long white jacket over a flower print dress and pink Mizuno running shoes. Abortion rights supporters packing the gallery applauded and shouted “Go Wendy” and “Thank you, Wendy.”
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the Senate’s Democratic leader, acknowledged that the issue “is a matter of great passion” but joined Dewhurst in urging spectators to maintain decorum and avoid outbursts.
Davis supporters outside the chamber signaled their support through the day. “We are with you,” tweeted the Texas Democratic Party.
Diana Viviana, a 61-year-old activist from Fort Worth, drove to Austin on Sunday and stayed to watch the filibuster as the abortion bill moved to the Senate after passage in the House. Although she doesn’t live in Davis’ district, she voiced unabashed enthusiasm for the Fort Worth senator.
“I think she could be president of the United States,” she said. I think she could be anything she wanted to.”
Another Fort Worth resident, self-employed antique dealer Paula Smith, also witnessed the talk-a-thon to display support for what she called a “very important cause.”
“I don’t believe men should decide what women should do with their bodies,” she said. Of Davis, Smith said: “She’s our star.”
Senators had little options for rescuing the two other bills on the calendar. The Senate could get to the bills if Davis’ filibuster ends or if Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy, moves to postpone consideration of the abortion bill, a move that would kill the abortion measure but would allow consideration of the other bills.
As the filibuster stretched into mid-afternoon, Republicans showed no signs of panic as they contemplated ways to remove Davis from the floor.
“We’ll see how it rides out,” said Hegar. “We’ve still got a little ways in this session.”
Tuesday’s talk-a-thon in a sense constituted an encore to a filibuster Davis waged at the end of the 2011 regular session to oppose more than $5 billion in education cuts. Her stand against the Republican-backed abortion package is also likely to further stoke Davis’ persona as a Democratic candidate for governor or another statewide office.
The Fort Worth attorney, a former city council member, is currently running for re-election in her Tarrant County Senate district but has not ruled out interest in a future statewide race.
Five Republican House members from Tarrant County sought to counter Davis’ filibuster by staging a press conference behind stacks of box filled with 84,610 blanks sheets of paper, which they said represented the number of Texas abortions performed in 2011. The lawmakers said they were responding to a Davis tweet calling on constituents to share their stories “so I can tell it from the Senate floor.”
“It is my hope and prayer that Sen. Davis would recognize all the letters that will never be written due to the tragedy of abortion today,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. Also present were Reps. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.