News Column

Perry Calls a Do-over in Texas

June 27, 2013
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (file photo)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (file photo)

Gov. Rick Perry announced a second special legislative session Wednesday, dulling Democratic celebrations one day after screaming, cheering protesters changed the course of legislative history, snatching victory from Republicans poised to approve tough abortion regulations.

The new 30-day session will begin Monday, and Perry placed tighter abortion controls on the top of to-do list.

"We will not allow the breakdown of decorum and decency to prevent us from doing what the people of this state hired us to do," he said.

Perry's move was in response to Tuesday's dramatic events at the Capitol: a filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who was upstaged when Republicans broke her grip on the microphone, only to be be upstaged by Democrats who used procedural moves to repeatedly delay a final vote.

In the end, however, the noisy crowd upstaged everyone, delaying a vote beyond the midnight Tuesday deadline in a drama that ruled social media, carrying word of a wild Texas night to an international audience and catapulting Davis into stardom on the political left.

For a while, the Texas Legislature was the greatest show on Earth.

As the first special session's midnight deadline drew near, hundreds of orange-clad spectators in the Senate gallery unleashed more than 15 minutes of deafening screams, halting Senate business and sowing confusion about whether there was a legitimate vote on a sweeping abortion measure, Senate Bill 5.

Official word didn't arrive until 3 a.m., when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst returned to the chamber to "regrettably" announce that SB 5 could not be sent to Perry because the session's time had expired.

"An unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics, disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies," Dewhurst said.

Davis had a different perspective. "Today was democracy in action," she told a large and adoring crowd outside the door to the Senate. "You all are the voices we were speaking for from the floor."

Perry had put the Legislature on a tight -- and ultimately futile -- schedule by adding abortion to the 30-day session's workload with only 14 days to spare. On Wednesday, however, he announced the second overtime session will include abortion, highway funding and sentences for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder -- all left unfinished in the first special session.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, Davis launched what she hoped would be a 12 hour and 42 minute filibuster to kill SB5. Republicans, watching closely for mistakes that could doom the effort, engaged in a series of objections, knowing that three violations would lead to a vote to stop Davis from speaking.

About 9:40 p.m., Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, made the objection that, sustained after a long discussion away from the microphone, became the third and final strike against Davis, who had shown no sign of flagging.

Outraged audience members broke into a chant -- "Let her speak! Let her speak!" -- and it soon became apparent that there were not enough Department of Public Safety troopers to control the crowd. One section of the gallery was cleared of most spectators, and several others were forcibly evicted, but most of the chanting spectators were left in place.

Afterward, Davis said the crowd was inspired by an unfair ruling.

Senate filibuster rules require the speaker to address only the bill in question. Two of the strikes against Davis were for "germaneness" -- one for discussing the U.S. Supreme Court decision granting women the right to an abortion, and the final strike for mentioning the 2011 law requiring a pre-abortion sonogram.

Davis and other Democrats argued that the topics were certainly germane to a discussion involving abortion, but Dewhurst disagreed, declining calls to explain the basis of his ruling.

Davis' filibuster continued by proxy as Democratic senators asked frequent questions and called numerous points of order -- each requiring a parliamentary ruling. Republicans were ready, however. Sens. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, prepared motions to move the previous question, forcing votes that cut through the procedural filibuster.

The vote to force consideration of SB5 began around 11:45 p.m., when the crowd was already cheering Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who objected to not being recognized to speak instead of Patrick: "At what point must a female senator have to raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?"

Unlike the Texas House, where votes are taken by pressing buttons on each representative's desk and are displayed on large electronic boards, the Senate votes by roll call. Senators hold up fingers, one for yes, two for no.

The crowd, clapping and hooting throughout, unleashed a sustained scream that drowned out the gavel that was being banged for order. Emboldened, the volume continued to grow, and senators were unable to hear their names being called, delaying eventual approval for Patrick's motion to force a vote on SB5.

By then, it was close to midnight. Senators were hurriedly gathered at the front desk so they could hear the roll call vote on SB 5. Suddenly, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, stepped away -- brandishing his cellphone, which read the time: 12:00.

"Mr. President, what time is it?" he yelled. "What's the time?"

Dewhurst reappeared at the microphone: "Members, it's now past midnight, I'm going to look for a motion from Sen. Whitmire to sine die," or declare the session over. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and dean of the Senate, declined, and Dewhurst walked away.

Senators from each party claimed victory as they were mobbed by reporters who, facing deadlines, had no idea how to report the vote.

Texas Legislature Online, the Internet portal for the Legislature, initially posted notice that the bill was approved Wednesday, past the midnight deadline. Around 1:05 a.m., that posting was changed to say SB5 passed Tuesday, but reporters had already captured images of the initial posting, tweeting copies to their audience and prompting calls for an investigation into the change.

The gallery was mostly clear by then, but outside of three reported arrests, few seemed to have left the Capitol. Instead, the Rotunda floor was packed with people wearing orange, the designated color for opponents of the bill, and a sit-in was underway outside the Senate chamber.

In the meantime, senators of both parties met in private to figure out what happened, leading to Dewhurst's 3 a.m. announcement and cheers from Davis' supporters that echoed through the Capitol.

___

(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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Source: Copyright Austin American-Statesman (TX) 2013


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