I am currently watching the most riveting television I’ve seen in weeks. State Sen. Wendy Davis of Texas is filibustering SB5, which would effectively shut down nearly all of the state’s abortion clinics and ban abortion after 20 weeks. She has been standing at her podium without food, water, or bathroom breaks for nine and a half hours, and she’s got three and a half more to go.
I wasn’t following the story closely before today, but I was vaguely aware of it. More background can be found here. The most poignant part of the story, for me, is that earlier in the week masses of Texans assembled to share their testimony against this bill, but they were denied the opportunity to speak. Sen. Davis is speaking for them. For going on ten hours. It’s a beautiful thing.
I tuned in to the live stream (viewable here if you’re reading this before midnight CST) around 6:15 CST. I was in time to catch the hour-long point of order discussion around whether Davis violated the rules of a filibuster by accepting a back brace from another senator. After 45 minutes of discussion, it was voted that she had, and she was given her second warning. One more warning and the senators can vote to remove her from the floor. (Which they will, because the majority supports the bill.) It was a nail-biter that ended disappointingly, but at least it ate up nearly an hour of time (and the questions immediately following about whether she could be penalized for receiving questions that were non-germane took up the rest of that hour). A handful of allies stood up at every opportunity for questions, clarifications, and occasionally actual arguments.
These points of order and parliamentary inquiries are where the whole thing is really just like watching any sport match: each side endeavors to introduce formalities, raise questions, and contend technicalities. For the pro-bill side, the goal is simply to find a reason to remove Sen. Davis from the floor. For the anti-bill side, it’s a little more fun, because they have to both combat their opponents’ efforts, and take up as much time as possible doing it. Asking for clarification, repeating questions, pointing out anachronisms in a bill’s wording… it all helps, because it’s one more minute Sen. Davis doesn’t have to fill by speaking. Key players in this fight have been Senators Rodney Ellis and Judith Zaffirini, to whom I want to give ALL the hugs. (For Senator Davis herself, ALL the drinks and maybe a weekend spa retreat.)
But then there are the other parts, where Davis herself is holding the floor. And unlike the West Wing episode from which I got most of my knowledge about filibustering, she can’t just say anything. Everything she says has to be germane to the bill — straying into a discussion of Roe v. Wade was what got her her first warning. So for about an hour I just heard her talking through a bill analysis, including a lengthy discussion of fetal pain, with lots of scientific evidence to back it up. Many people on facebook and twitter made the obvious joke that that was the most science that’s ever been read in the Texas senate. She went on to talk about the hardships that this bill puts on doctors and patients alike. She’s making real arguments, good arguments. At some point earlier, she was reading the personal testimonies of many women (and perhaps men) about the hardships that would be created by the passing of this bill. She’s speaking for the people and she’s making good arguments, and at the same time there’s a sort of bitter irony, because it doesn’t matter how good her arguments are. The game is not to convince the opponent, because she knows they won’t be convinced. The game is to hold the floor, and keep talking till they can no longer do the damage they’re intending to do. If the parliamentary games are a sport match, Davis’s extended solo sessions are a mountain ascent, an epic feat of endurance where one misstep could lead to disaster.
As I’ve been writing we’re down to 2 hours and 50 minutes, and Senator Zaffirini brought up another bill that needs to be voted on before the close of the session at midnight. I don’t think I can possibly go to sleep until I know what happens. Regardless of the outcome, I am more inspired than I’ve been by a politician in — possibly years. It’s so rare that we get to see one person, doing one thing, that will have a definitive outcome. I accept the complexity of most real-life political and social problem-solving, but this human heart loves a good story of a lone hero standing up to fight for what they believe in. And I’m watching one now.
Edited to update: The end was just as good, and just as dramatic, as the rest. Seriously, if they make a movie out of this they won’t have to tweak the material far at the climax. With less than 2 hours to go, a third warning was laid against Davis for talking about a sonogram bill which opposing senators claim was not “germane.” Senators Watson, Van de Putte, West, and Whitmire fought hard for the next hour and a half, arguing that there should be a debate, arguing that previous rulings didn’t warrant the ending of a filibuster with only two warnings on germaneness and one on something else. Meanwhile the opposing senators were working to fast-track this, end any debates, and shut things down. There were so many motions, points of order, and parliamentary inquiries raised in rapid succession that I think everybody got a little confused, to the point where it wasn’t just a delaying tactic when a senator asked to clarify what, precisely, was being voted on now. (At least, I think it wasn’t; perhaps they were following better than me.)
With only half an hour to go, Sen. Kirk Watson held the floor with a lengthy protest of the recent proceedings, arguing that opposing senators were not giving proper respect to parliamentary process and the right to filibuster by shutting Davis down on the flimsiest excuses. When he paused too long, an opposing senator put forward a motion to vote (not on SB5 but on whether to take back the earlier warning that took the vote from Davis.) The vote was taken, despite protests, and the warning stood. Remember: in this environment, every vote is bad for the Democrats.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who had been away earlier in the day to attend her father’s funeral, took the final leg of this endurance race. She stood up saying she had raised a motion to adjourn before that vote had been taken, but had been ignored by the chair, who claimed he hadn’t seen her. (Shouts from the crowd of “We saw her!” rose up, and Van de Putte stated that she had been seen by many in the senate.) She then voted against her party (again, not on SB5 but on one of the motions about proceedings) in order to have the standing to call some measure into question. She was essentially ignored again. With just ten minutes to go, she stood and said, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?”
And the crowd went wild. Shouting, chanting, yelling, clapping. At first I believe it was a spontaneous, passionate response to Sen. Van de Putte’s comment and the building frustration many of us watching about the silencing of women that was going on on multiple levels here. But then it became clear that noise in the gallery was, perhaps, the only way left to stop the bill. Van de Putte took the final leg, but the crowd brought it home, shouting, chanting, and cheering for ten solid minutes so that the vote couldn’t be taken. (A vote was taken, somewhere in there, but it was a procedural thing, I have no idea what.)
After midnight the shouts died down, although there was still noise. Nobody was quite sure what had happened — was that vote taken in the last few minutes the bill or something else? Then the senators gathered around the dais and voted on SB5. Whether they thought they still had time or were just hoping to get away with it is unclear. Reports on what had happened divided along party lines, with Republican senators declaring that the bill had passed and Democratic senators declaring that the vote was invalid. At that point I went to bed, fearing that this was only going to be resolved with a lawsuit.
Happily, I woke to see that after 3 am a ruling was finally given that the vote wasn’t valid and that SB5 had failed to pass. They did it.