Texas is a mess.
The news of the day over the US Supreme Court’s decision will drown out the trench warfare witnessed at the same time in Texas, as its Senate, with only 31 members, debated and fought over the status of abortion in the nation’s second largest state.
I spent four hours Tuesday afternoon and early evening listening to Fort Worth Democratic Senator Wendy Davis hold the floor as she filibustered to block a vote on Texas bill SB5 (Senate Bill 5) whose provisions would create requirements that would be difficult to meet for clinics and providers of abortion services, and effectively make doctors unavailable, force clinics to close, and put requirements on women that would restrict their access to legal abortions.
When asked by a fellow Democratic senator to confirm whether passage of SB5 “won’t limit abortions, only the legal ones,” Sen. Davis added: “and the safe ones.”
Limited, legal, or safe abortions made no difference to Texas’ Republican senators whose collective strategy it was to challenge Sen. Wendy Davis on points of order as she spoke. Texas Senate Rule 403 requires the speaker on the floor to confine remarks to the bill; comments must be “germane” to the legislation. Two warnings can be given, if the Presiding Officer of the Senate finds, after a challenge, the remarks have not been germane. After a successful third challenge, the Senate may vote on the right of the speaker to continue.
The key phrase: “as it applies to SB5.” That makes the discussion relevant to the bill.
Sen. Davis’ second warning, however, involved “comfort to a member,” and raised the issue whether by receiving assistance with putting on a back brace during a discussion at the dais, Sen. Davis violated the rule on decorum.
This challenge was resolved by a vote of the Texas Senate, as the Lt. Governor, citing no prior precedent for a ruling, turned the decision over to the body. The Republicans who were sticklers for the letter of the law voted for a violation not written in the rules for which there was no precedent!
The third successful challenge came at 10:39 pm, Central time. The rest of the evening devolved into a series of maneuvers that lead to a vote Republicans initially said resulted in the bill’s passage, but even that was uncertain.
Despite the Republican bluff and bluster, and media reports of passage, the bill’s voted ended after the midnight deadline for the special session. The vote was recorded at 12: 02 am. The same Republican senators who demanded strict, narrow accountability during the filibuster now sought to play fast and loose in the final minutes of the special session, claiming the vote began before the midnight hour, and therefore should count.
After the third challenge, using a page from the GOP playbook, Democrats resorted to points of order and sought rulings that delayed the vote on SB5 until shortly before midnight.
Then, in a state that prides itself on its fierce independence, the citizens of the state took over. The gallery created such a din that the vote could not be heard and could not proceed. It was so loud that many screaming covered their ears.
Typical of Republican deaf-ear arrogance, one senator admonished his state’s citizens: “The people can’t come and create so much of a ruckus that we can’t do our job.”
Yes, they can. No Senate rule prohibits it. There is precedent. Particularly if it’s a job the citizens don’t want done.
At 3 am, the Lt. Governor ruled that SB5 had not passed during the special session, according to the Texas Tribune‘s live blog, even as I watched CBS, ABC and other media report that it had and the filibuster failed.
The Austin Statesman reported online: “Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst returned to the Senate floor at 3:01 a.m., banged the gavel and announced that, ‘regrettably, the constitutional time expired’ on the special session.
Senate Bill 5 cannot be signed because it passed after midnight, he said.”
In the speed of the internet, mistakes and misstatements of important errors linger longer than they should. Why?
More telling, the official legislative website, recording actions and votes, was changed after it showed the voting ending after midnight, and being recorded on June 26.
That change can only be done by a manual override. That Republicans were willing to deliberately alter the official record shows the degree of their abuse of power and disrespect for democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Of course, after the media ignores this important incident, a conspiracy will emerge that this was done to blame Republicans, distracting from the fact that the vote end two minutes after midnight, and the bill, for this session at least, is dead, as the Lt. Governor finally ruled.
Hundreds of impassioned citizens stalled proceedings and ultimately defeated SB5 in a storm of screams and shouts as the clock struck midnight.
“I am overwhelmed, honestly,” said Davis, after standing nearly 13 hours to filibuster SB5.
As the Texas Aenate debated, the state’s Attorney General launched into a different line of attack. Within minutes of the Supreme Court ruling the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, the Attorney General put into place two provisions of Texas law that had been blocked and held up under the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court overturned.
On Twitter, US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA-5) had this to say about the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling:
“These men never stood in unmovable lines. They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote.
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most effective pieces of legislation Congress has passed in the last 50 years. Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
In a legislative melee and fiasco, and by a power play, Texas was the first state to dirty its hands in the blood.