Democracy had a bad night late Tuesday/early Wednesday in the 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 abortion restriction bill, killed by what Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called an “unruly mob,” was a very important measure.
Republicans, who run the Capitol, somehow managed to mismanage the bill so that it didn’t come up for approval until the final day of the special session that ended 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. So Republicans spent hours watching 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. Under Senate filibuster rules, three strikes and you’re out.
The rules say Davis’ comments had to be germane to the measure. She was ruled off topic twice for talking about Roe v. Wade and the 2011 legislation requiring preabortion sonograms. I don’t know, seemed kind of germaney 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.
As midnight approached after the Republicans had railroaded Davis’ filibuster to conclusion, 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’s foes who packed the gallery and had behaved all day.
The behavior deteriorated into intentional chaos when Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, 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.
And 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 midnight. 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, Republicans said, insisting the vote began before midnight. The official Senate record initially showed the vote happened Wednesday, after the deadline. The record shortly thereafter was updated to show it happened Tuesday. Time, it seems, is an opinion in the Texas Senate.
After a closed-door caucus of all senators, Dewhurst, blaming the “unruly mob,” declared the bill dead.
“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 with plenty of blame to go around, I found myself more concerned by the behavior of the unelected in the gallery who screamed down a bill they opposed.
“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,” Watson told them in the Capitol rotunda at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday.
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 the Dewhurst-led GOP 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.
The fun resumes Monday, opening day for the next special session, which Gov. Rick Perry announced Wednesday. Fireworks for the Fourth, anyone?