AUSTIN, TX — At 10 minutes to midnight Tuesday evening, tempers in the Texas Senate finally boiled over. On the floor, Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) was fighting with every parliamentary knife in Robert’s Rules of Order to both challenge the latest ruling from the chair and to buy time.
That’s when the gallery erupted in shouts and screams that drowned out all other noise. Time was of the essence for Republicans who favored some of the sharpest new restrictions on abortion in the nation, and for the handful of Democrats who opposed them—led by Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth), who had launched a grueling filibuster more than 12 hours earlier.
And for reporters, the battle to cover a fight over one of the nation’s most divisive issues was reaching its peak. But it turned out to be not so much a contest of one news outlet against one another (though there were some definite media standouts) as against the Senate itself. In an era when it’s reasonable to worry about government watching us through the eerie lens of social media, citizens and journalists used streaming video, live-blogging, and Twitter in a collaborative exercise to help each other watch what government was doing in the literal dead of night—and to ferret out what the hell had just happened.
So when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, tried to ram the bill through—claiming a roll call to pass the legislation came before constitutionally-mandated midnight deadline—the moment may not have been captured on cable news, but a state, and a nation, was watching. And when the official record on the legislature’s website was changed to show the vote getting in under the wire, screenshots flagging the alteration immediately began circulating on Twitter. Nearly three hours later, the galleries cleared, protesters still outside, Dewhurst would reverse himself. The bill, which would have outlawed abortion after 20 weeks and placed new regulatory restrictions on clinics that critics said would restrict the procedure to a handful of major facilities in big cities, died—for now.
A ‘dreadfully dull’ livestream is set ablaze
Texas is, in a way, home to both today’s constitutionally protected reproductive rights and the divisive controversy that continues to surround them. A Texas woman, Norma McCorvey, known under the legal pseudonym of Jane Roe, was the plaintiff against Dallas County Attorney Henry Wade in Roe v. Wade, decided by the Supreme Court in 1973. (McCorvey would later become an anti-abortion activist.)
Forty years later, the state’s conservative legislative majority is at the forefront of efforts to impose restrictions on abortion; proposals to do so had percolated in the House throughout this year’s legislative session. But pro-choice Democrats comprise just over a third of the Senate, which by custom gave them enough votes to keep a measure from coming to the floor in that chamber.
When Republican Gov. Rick Perry convened a special session and announced that the abortion bill was among his top priorities, however, confrontation hung in the air. As Texas Monthly’s Sonia Smith noted in a sharp June 19 story, at the start of the special session the Republican majority had scrapped the longstanding rule that allowed Democrats to have a say on what made it to a vote on the Senate floor. A few days later, after the measure cleared the House, her Monthly colleague Paul Burka observed that on this issue, there was no middle ground to be found: “What is true of abortion is true of all the social issues: They can’t be debated. They can only be argued and argued and argued.”
In fact, endless argument—a traditional marathon filibuster—was now the Democrats’ only weapon. In the US Senate, filibusters are routinely used to block legislation, but “talking filibusters” are so rare that when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) launched one earlier this year to raise questions about the Obama administration’s use of drones for targeted killing, it became a social media sensation. When Wendy Davis rose to the Senate floor in Austin Tuesday, she had a very specific goal in mind: to run out the clock on the abortion bill. But she was also, like Paul, creating a media event.
“This was the first long filibuster in the social media age in Texas,” said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune.