AUSTIN -- Democracy had a bad night late Tuesday/early Wednesday in a Texas Senate chamber where both sides worked to avoid the moral high ground. Both succeeded.
In the end, how the battle over a GOP-backed abortion restriction bill was fought became more important than what was in the bill. That’s saying a lot because the bill, killed by what Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst accurately called an “unruly mob,” was an important measure that would have greatly restricted Texans’ access to abortion.
Republicans, who control the Capitol, somehow managed to mismanage the bill so that it didn’t come up for final Senate approval until it was in the filibuster zone on the final day of the special session that ended at midnight Tuesday. All Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, had to do was talk for about 13 hours. Piece of cake. She’s a triathlete.
Nervous Repubs kept close watch for filibuster rule violations. About 11 hours into it, they had found three. Or at least they claimed to have found three and got friendly rulings on each, twice from Dewhurst and once on a vote.
During a filibuster, it’s three strikes and you’re out. Two violations involved a rule requiring Davis to remain on topic as she tried to talk the bill to death. The rule says her comments had to be germane to the measure. Davis was ruled off topic for talking about Roe v. Wade and the 2011 legislation requiring pre-abortion sonograms. I don’t know, seemed kind of germane to an abortion bill.
The third violation involved Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis’ assistance when Davis donned a back support, which was deemed a violation of the rule against helping a filibusterer. Meager at best, but a reminder of why it’s helpful to win elections and have your team in position to make these rulings. It’s been about a generation since Texas Dems have known what that feels like.
As the clock moved toward midnight, panicky Repubs knew the deadline was approaching. Democratic senators, led by Kirk Watson, D-Austin, stalled as best they could with parliamentary questions and other time-killers, moves that revved up the bill foes who packed the gallery and, for the most part, behaved during the day.
The behavior deteriorated into intentional chaos when Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio and fresh from her dad’s funeral earlier in the day, complained that a motion she had made prior to a procedural vote had been ignored.
”At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” she asked.
With that, as they say at the ballpark, the crowd went wild.
The tumult from above in the Senate gallery drowned out everything below. For the first time since I came to Austin in 1979, I saw a legislative chamber out of control. It was not pretty, disturbingly close to scary.
The screaming continued as Dewhurst scrambled to squeeze the vote in prior to the midnight deadline. As it was going on, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, came to the press table screaming above everyone else’s screams, as Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, used his iPhone to show us the time.
“It was 12:01 when we started,” West yelled,“so the session was over with.”
Nope, Repubs said, insisting the vote began before Tuesday became Wednesday. The official Senate record initially showed the vote happened Wednesday, after the deadline. Somehow, the record shortly thereafter was updated to show it happened Tuesday, before the deadline. Time, it seems, is an opinion in the Texas Senate.
After a closed-door caucus of all senators, an angered Dewhurst claimed the bill had passed by a 19-10 vote but the chamber chaos prevented him from taking the required administerial steps for formal approval prior to the deadline.
“This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Dewhurst, who probably saw some incredible things back when he worked for the CIA.
On a night when there was plenty of blame to go around, I found myself more concerned by the behavior of unelected participants in the gallery who screamed down a bill they opposed. At about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, in the Capitol rotunda, Watson congratulated them.
”What many people are saying is the reason that the time expired is because there was a disruption in the gallery . . . I’ll stand on behalf of all my Democratic colleagues: We’ll take that,” he said.
They’ll take that because, due to their inability to win elections, that’s about the only way Texas Democrats can win. And that troubles me far more than the unconscionable rulebook shenanigans Republicans used to try to bulldoze the bill to approval.
There’s recourse against that kind of bullying. It’s exacted at the ballot box. But I’m not sure what you do when an unruly mob, on any side of any issue, rules the day. That’s dangerous to democracy.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.