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In Texas, Marathon Filibuster Derails New State Restrictions on Abortion

June 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A Texas state bill supported by Republican lawmakers to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and require new standards for abortion providers was derailed by a marathon filibuster led by Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis. Gwen Ifill recaps the dramatic night in the Texas State Senate with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: how a local battle in Texas over abortion legislation erupted into a national debate.

Chaos erupted in the Texas State Senate last night, as abortion-rights backers thundered their opposition to tough new restrictions. In the midst of the din, majority Republicans insisted the bill, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, had passed. But official records showed that didn’t happen until after a midnight deadline had come and gone.

Just after 3:00 a.m., Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst, who presided over the session, conceded defeat.

LT. GOV. DAVID DEWHURST, R-Texas: Regrettably, the constitutional time for the first called session of the 83rd legislature has expired. Senate Bill 5 cannot be signed in the presence of the Senate at this time and therefore cannot be enrolled.

GWEN IFILL: The bill would have required clinics to upgrade to surgical-level centers, an expense that would have caused most existing facilities to close.

Had it passed, Texas would have joined Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, North Dakota, and Virginia, all states that recently adopted stringent new anti-abortion laws. The campaign to derail the measure was the brainchild of Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis, who declared her intent to talk the bill to death.

MAN: Is it still your intention to filibuster?

STATE SEN. WENDY DAVIS, D-Texas: Yes, Mr. President

GWEN IFILL: Sporting pink tennis shoes, Davis began speaking at 11:15 in the morning.

WENDY DAVIS: Members, I’m rising on the floor today to humbly give a voice to thousands of Texans who have been ignored. These are Texans who relied on the minority members of this Senate in order for their voices to be heard.

GWEN IFILL: News of the filibuster quickly grabbed national attention on social media and a catchy hashtag. Late in the day, President Obama tweeted: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight. Stand with Wendy.”

Davis continued speaking for nearly 11 hours and had intended to go until midnight.

WENDY DAVIS: Laws are to create justice for all. We also received this written testimony. There’s a medical necessity. Women need timely access.

GWEN IFILL: But around 10:00 p.m., Republicans forced an end to the filibuster, ruling Davis had strayed off-topic. That sparked nearly two hours of heated debate, as Democrats raised procedural questions to delay a vote.

Then, the protesters crowded into the gallery took over. When it was finally official that the bill had been blocked, Davis thanked her supporters.

WENDY DAVIS: Today was the example of government for the people, by the people, and of the people.

GWEN IFILL: Late today, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called another special session to address the abortion bill.

For more on the high noon Texas political drama as it unfolded, we turn to Evan Smith, editor in chief of The Texas Tribune.

Evan, thanks for joining us.

EVAN SMITH, Editor in Chief, The Texas Tribune: Sure thing.

GWEN IFILL: So give me a sense about how this went from being a local showdown to being a big national story.

EVAN SMITH: You know, it’s amazing how in the world of technology, things that never would have gotten the attention of people outside of Austin, let alone outside of Texas, now become national and international stories.

We live-streamed the Senate debate last night. The Senate live-streams the debate themselves, but we put it out there in a way that other media could embed the video. And very quickly, we had more than 100,000 and ultimately almost 190,000 people from around the world watching this story. More than anything else, social media and YouTube made it possible for this story to go international and for Wendy Davis to be the latest folk hero to come out of Texas.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s go back a moment. And tell us a little bit more about what this legislation would have done. It would have closed 37 of 42 clinics that currently exist, practically?

EVAN SMITH: Right.

Well, that’s not entirely clear. It would have required the abortion clinics — and there are 42 in the state of Texas — to upgrade to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. Supporters of the bill said that the clinics were not required to close. They simply had to meet those standards and pay the money to make those upgrades.

But abortion supporters or pro-choice — the pro-choice side of this said that the burdens on these clinics were so onerous that the practical result would be to close them. The expectation would be that of the 42 clinics, under this bill, as many as 37 were likely to close, leaving just five abortion clinics in the entire state of Texas that would be available under this new law.

GWEN IFILL: Evan, tell us a little bit about Wendy Davis. This is not the first time she’s filibustered something.

EVAN SMITH: Correct.

Back in the 2011 legislative session, when they were getting ready to cut $4 billion dollars from public education, a historic cut, Wendy Davis filibustered at the end of the first regular called — regular session. She talked this to death, basically. She was able to run the clock out, as she wasn’t able to do by herself yesterday.

Gov. Perry called a special session. They came back in. They instituted those education cuts anyway in the special session, but Wendy Davis became something of a folk hero two years ago for having had the brass to stand up to the power structure in Texas. She was one person. By herself, she basically talked those cuts to death.

So coming into this session, she already had a reputation for being willing to do that. And, you know, look, the abortion issue is one that divides Texas, as it divides many other places. And when these laws were proposed, not just the upgrade of the abortion clinics, but also the ban after 20 weeks, Wendy Davis announced, “I’m going to do what I can to stop this, made the point of filibustering again.”

And, again, you and I both remember the movie “Billy Jack,” right? She is basically state Sen. Billy Jack, the Fort Worth. She’s really assumed a folk hero status. Not since Ann Richards, Gwen, has a Democrat risen to national-international level of acclaim, for good or for ill, that she has.

GWEN IFILL: Well, in the end, did she and other Democrats just outmaneuver the Republicans? Because they do have the majority and the majority — the public opinion behind them on this.

EVAN SMITH: Yes, it’s kind of amazing.

There are 95 Republicans out of 150 in the Texas House, 19 Republicans out of 31 in the Texas Senate, where Wendy Davis serves. Republicans enjoy almost a supermajority in both houses. Every statewide elected official is a Republican. In fact, no Democrat has been elected statewide in Texas since 1994. This is not just a red state. This is a blood red state.

How amazing in a state like this with those numbers that the Republicans could not manage to get this through. The Democrats used the rule book as their weapon, the only weapon they had available. They simply outplayed the Republicans in this case.

GWEN IFILL: There have been a lot of theatrics. I have been following your tweets on this now for days and weeks.

EVAN SMITH: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And it seems there was one episode in which women showed up dressed as characters from “Mad Men”?

EVAN SMITH: Yes.

You know, this week has been one for the books in terms of how the public inserted themselves into the process, not just by being more engaged than at any time that I have seen before, not just by using Twitter and other social media platforms to build community and to organize around this issue.

But the numbers of people who showed up in various states, in dress and in orange shirts to signify their pro-choice leanings — and, quite frankly, the pro-life side, they showed up in blue shirts. They didn’t show up in quite the same numbers. The public’s level of engagement on this issue should give hope to people like you and me who think no one is paying attention.

Everyone’s paying attention. And I come back to what I said at the beginning. Because of technology, in a literal sense, the whole world was watching. That’s why this thing was such a significant moment for Texas and for Texas politics.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we know for sure that Gov. Rick Perry is paying attention.

EVAN SMITH: He is.

GWEN IFILL: And we hear this afternoon that he plans to take another whack at this. Tell us about how that would have to happen.

EVAN SMITH: Right.

He’s coming back — bringing them back into session on Monday, July 1. And here’s the deal. The Democrats were able to use the rule book to run out the clock this last time. They’re not going to be able to use the rule book, almost certainly, to run out the clock this time. They won the battle. They will almost certainly lose the war.

They can marshal the opposition to this bill. Wendy Davis and her colleagues can stand and talk and maneuver and do everything they can. The outcome of this is more or less decided. They’re going to pass this bill. The victory was achieved in forcing them go into a second special session.

And the reality is, whatever the outcome, Wendy Davis is the folk hero that everyone views her as. And her celebrity is on the rise. Her political prospects have risen. And for the first time, really — again, I go back to Ann Richards, Gwen — for the first time since Ann Richards, the Democrats have somebody they can rally around as a candidate who may begin to turn the clock back.

GWEN IFILL: Well, keep your — keep your Texas history hat on for a moment.

EVAN SMITH: OK.

GWEN IFILL: How atypical is this kind of challenge? When you say, you know, that they’re going to lose the war, just the fact of this kind of challenge, how unusual was it?

EVAN SMITH: Right.

Well, there haven’t been many successful filibusters and certainly not of this length in the history of this state. It was enormously successful. And it wasn’t just successful for what she did. It was successful for the way she did it and for the times in which she did it.

I go back to this point. Democrats haven’t had very much to be hopeful about in this state for a very long time. There haven’t been candidates who have run successfully, who have even come close to winning. In the legislature, the Democrats don’t have enough numbers to either do anything or prevent anything.

It’s really been a case where the Democrats are effectively the third party in a two-party state. The two parties really are the old moderate Republicans and the tea party. And most of the big political fights are Republican-on-Republican, rather than Republican and Democrat. Redistricting has taken competition out of the vast majority of our elections, so that’s why it’s so unusual.

Democrats have had so little to get energized about. Last night was really one that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it was certainly interesting to watch.

EVAN SMITH: It was.

GWEN IFILL: Evan Smith, thanks a lot for joining us.

EVAN SMITH: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have more on how social media allowed spectators across the country to take part in that Austin debate.