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Texas abortion bill dies as confusion marks end of session

Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 26, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-26 08:21:43-04

By Ed Payne, CNN

(CNN) — The Texas legislature’s special session ended in chaos and confusion early Wednesday, when a marathon filibuster failed — but so did a Republican effort to pass a bill that would have greatly restricted abortions in the state.

The Republican-dominated Senate needed to vote “yea” on the bill by midnight to send it to the governor to sign into law.

But at 3 a.m., Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stepped to the Senate floor to declare the bill dead and the special session over.

And thus ended a night of intense drama that both sides of the abortion debate followed breathlessly, in large part to cheer — or jeer — the efforts of a lone lawmaker who talked for 10 straight hours to run out the clock.

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis tried Tuesday to block the abortion bill by attempting a 13-hour filibuster, but fell short by about three hours when the chairman ruled she had gone off topic.

The packed gallery of the session erupted in boos. And for 15 minutes — as the clocked ticked toward 12 a.m. — their raucous chants and shouts of “Shame, shame, shame” drowned out the proceedings.

Although it wasn’t immediately apparent to onlookers, the disruption prevented lawmakers from completing their vote by the official end of the session — killing the bill.

“There were attempts to shove every rule aside in order to try to cram this vote through, and the voices of the people who were in the Capitol gallery tonight could not be silenced, and it simply didn’t allow the vote to be taken in time,” Davis said early Wednesday.

It took until shortly after 3 a.m. to declare the session over, in what a spokesman for one lawmaker called an unprecedented ending.

“I have been here 18 years and have never seen anything like this,” Jeremy Warren, spokesman for Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis, said before the session ended.

Gov. Rick Perry may ask for another session to reconsider the bill.

“The governor reserves the right to call the legislature back into special session anytime during the interim,” a statement from his office said.

Still, Planned Parenthood cheered the victory.

“This fight showed once again that we are all better off when women and their doctors — not politicians — are the ones making medical decisions,” Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said. “We made history tonight, but we know this isn’t the end of the fight to protect women’s access to health care in Texas.”

What was at stake

The bill would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and tightened standards on abortion clinics and the doctors who work at them. Critics say it would have shut most of the abortion clinics in Texas.

The bill passed the state House of Representatives, and Perry, a former Republican presidential candidate, said he’d sign it.

“In Texas, we value all life, and we’ve worked to cultivate a culture that supports the birth of every child,” Perry said. “We have an obligation to protect unborn children, and to hold those who peddle these abortions to standards that would minimize the death, disease and pain they cause.”

While Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, they didn’t have the votes to thwart a filibuster without a violation of Senate rules.

The filibuster begins

Davis, 50, took to the floor of the chamber late Tuesday morning, wearing pink sneakers, to criticize the bill. Rules called for her to stand, unaided, until midnight, for the filibuster to succeed.

At the outset, Davis said she was speaking for families whose “personal relationships with their doctor and their creator” would be violated by the bill.

“These voices have been silenced by a governor who made blind partisanship and personal political ambition the official business of our great state,” she said. “And sadly, he’s being abetted by legislative leaders who either share this blind partisanship or simply do not have the strength to oppose it.”

Davis had a snack and a small amount of water before beginning, her office said. She was not allowed to lean or take a bathroom break.

Davis was allowed three warnings before the Senate was to be allowed to vote on whether she must stop her filibuster.

The senator spent much of the time reading testimony and messages from women decrying the bill and recounting stories of the struggles they, their friends or relatives faced in the days before birth control and abortion were legalized.

“Women realize that these bills will not protect their heath,” she said. “They will only reduce their access to abortion providers and limit their ability to make their own family-planning decisions.”

Her comments were ruled off topic early in the debate, for the first warning.

Later in the evening, a fellow senator helped Davis put on a back brace, which angered some lawmakers who said it violated filibuster rules. That view was upheld in a vote, and she was given a second warning.

About 10 p.m., Davis talked about the abortion pill, RU486, and the chairman ruled that her comments again were off topic.

But a member of the Senate then moved that the ruling be appealed, and the status of the ruling was in doubt.

The final hours of the session contained a confusing myriad of parliamentary maneuvers, until Sen. Leticia Van de Putte stepped to the microphone, effectively putting an end to the debate.

“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

The gallery erupted in applause and chants of “Wendy, Wendy, Wendy” rang out during the last 15 minutes before midnight.

After the session ended, Davis waded into the crowd of supporters to praise them.

“So wonderful to come here at the end of a long, hard day and celebrate with the people who truly made this happen,” she said.

The last stand

Davis’ stand captivated abortion rights advocates from coast to coast, prompting the hashtag #standwithwendy on Twitter.

The White House took notice.

“Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” said a post on President Barack Obama’s official Twitter account. The account is run by Organizing for Action, a nonprofit group established to support the president’s legislative agenda.

A post by Aimee Parker of Los Angeles said: “I’m in absolute awe of you, @WendyDavisTexas. Thank you for your passion, perseverance and unparalleled badassery.”

English comedian Ricky Gervais weighed in as well.

“Whatever the outcome, @WendyDavisTexas efforts entered her into the pantheon of American heroes tonight.”

Heady times for Davis, who was first elected to the Texas Senate in 2008, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent to do so.

Last year, she staged a filibuster to force a special session in an attempt to stop $5 billion in cuts to Texas public schools, according to her website.

Davis, who became a single mother at age 19, went on to graduate with honors from Harvard Law School, it says.

Her 10-hour filibuster was nowhere close to a record for the state. In 1977, Sen. Bill Meier staged a 43-hour marathon.

The special session ends with a bit of irony, Twitter user Cody Beckner said, echoing the governor’s own words.

“‘In Texas, we value all life,’ Gov. Perry TX. Said on the eve of the state’s 500th execution.”

CNN’s Josh Rubin, Matt Smith, Joe Sutton and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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