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Texas-sized filibuster on abortion bill ends in chaos

A state senator wages a marathon effort to block legislation that seeks to tighten restrictions.

June 26, 2013|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON — When Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis arrived at the Capitol in Austin on Tuesday morning wearing pink sneakers, everyone knew that a daylong, marathon filibuster was about to begin. So was a controversy.

Davis, 50, a Democrat from Fort Worth, had been chosen by her caucus to mount a last-ditch attempt to block sweeping legislation to ban abortions at 20 weeks and force abortion clinics to upgrade or close. It was unclear whether she had succeeded.

The standards for filibusters in the 31-member Texas Senate are stricter than in the U.S. Senate. Davis would have to speak about the legislation until the special session ended at midnight. No talking off topic. No food or water. No bathroom breaks. No leaning on her desk. Certainly no sitting; her chair was removed.

Davis had filibustered once before, for less than two hours. But the former single teenage mother had made it to Harvard Law School, served nine years on the Fort Worth City Council, run a marathon and triathlon, and had plenty of stories to tell. She arrived armed with binders full of other women's stories too.

At 11:18 a.m. Central time, she began speaking.

"Partisanship and ambition are not unusual in a state Capitol. But here in Texas, right now, they have risen to a level of profound irresponsibility and raw abuse of power," Davis said. "I will share with you what thousands of families have to say about this legislation and those bringing this legislation to the floor when the majority of Texans want us working on the pressing, genuine business of the people."

Her binders contained testimony submitted by opponents of the legislation, many of whom were unable to address the House before it passed the legislation Monday. As the hours passed Tuesday, Davis paced in her pale blue striped suit, an orange abortion rights pin on her lapel. She spoke softly, at times tearing up. Her speeches grew personal as she talked about life as a single mother and an ectopic pregnancy.

"I have been there -- I have been to the point where I could not afford to put gas in my car. These are the type of women who are impacted by this, and shouldn't we be able to tell them there is a reason for it?" Davis said.

As she spoke, several Republican senators remained glued to their seats, ensuring Davis complied with filibuster protocol. Some sent staffers to fetch rule books and consult with the parliamentarian.

"There's not much they can do," said Gary Scharrer, spokesman for one of the Republicans, Houston-area Sen. Tommy Williams. "Obviously they won't allow her to lean. They certainly won't allow her to go to the women's room. There's not much they can do except hang around and wait."

Hours into Davis' marathon, President Obama offered encouragement. "Something special is happening in Austin tonight," he tweeted, using the hashtag #StandWithWendy.

Scores of spectators packed the Senate gallery, including activists on both sides of the issue.

Abortion rights activists in orange T-shirts snapped photos and tweeted the filibuster's progress, among them Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who had traveled to Texas for the filibuster. Their motto: "Go, Wendy, go!"

Last week, during the House debate, some of the same spectators expressed support using sign-language signals for applause. On Tuesday they were more careful, wary of jeopardizing the filibuster.

Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life Coalition, watched from the gallery, skeptical Davis could make it to midnight. She also intended to ensure that no one sneaked Davis snacks or a drink; there have been rumors of such cheating during past filibusters, she said.

Wright, who lives in Davis' district, dismissed her as "a show horse," predicting she would "get a lot of notoriety out of it but she'll fold later in the day."

Others bet on Davis.

"She knew how taxing this was going to be and she's doing it because she believes in democracy," said Lesli Simms, 22, of Houston, a student at Austin's St. Edwards University.

Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said this filibuster could be the longest, most high-profile in recent memory.

Filibusters are relatively uncommon in Texas, where the Legislature meets every other year.

"The filibuster works better in a place like Texas where you have limited legislative sessions," Riddlesperger said. "What makes this filibuster so extraordinarily effective is all Wendy Davis has to do is talk until the legislative session is over."

Davis kept her staff busy during the day addressing procedural questions. She was warned that by law her comments had to be germane to the legislation. She could get two warnings before a third violation would allow opponents to call a vote, ending the filibuster.

Could she read testimony from the same person twice, as long as it was related to the legislation? Staffers advised her not to risk breaking the rules.

Should she yield to questions from Democrats to give her voice a rest?

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