UPDATE: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says Republicans voted to pass new abortion mesarues before midnight, but due to "a people's filibuster," he could not sign the bill before the deadline. More details here: http://bit.ly/11Hmms0
Amid the deafening roar of abortion rights supporters, Texas Republicans huddled around the Senate podium to pass new abortion restrictions, but whether the vote was cast before or after midnight is in dispute.
Hundreds of protesters cheered, clapped and shouted for the last 15 minutes of the special legislative session in an attempt to run out the clock before senators could vote on the bill that is expected to close almost every abortion clinic in the nation's second most populous state.
While Democrats as well as assembled reporters watched clocks on their mobile phones tick past midnight, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the voting began just before. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who directed that the legislation be taken up in the special session and is expected to sign it into law.
Democrats immediately predicted a legal challenge.
"It's questionable to vote when no one can hear to even know if a vote is taken," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
One of the state's most conservative lawmakers, Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, insisted the vote was valid.
"Had that not happened, everyone would have known what was happening," he said.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, spent most of the day staging an old-fashioned filibuster, attracting wide support, including a mention from President Barack Obama's campaign Twitter account. Her Twitter following went from 1,200 in the morning to more than 20,000 by Tuesday night.
Davis' mission, however, was cut short.
Rules stipulated she remain standing, not lean on her desk or take any breaks — even for meals or to use the bathroom. But she also was required to stay on topic, and Republicans pointed out a mistake and later protested again when another lawmaker helped her with a back brace.
Republican Sen. Donna Campbell called the third point of order because of her remarks about a previous law concerning sonograms. Under the rules, lawmakers can vote to end a filibuster after three sustained points of order.
After much back and forth, the GOP voted to end the filibuster minutes before midnight, sparking the raucous response from protesters.
If signed into law, the measures would close almost every abortion clinic in Texas, a state 773 miles wide and 790 miles long with 26 million people. A woman living along the Mexico border or in West Texas would have to drive hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion if the law passes. The law's provision that abortions be performed at surgical centers means only five of Texas' 42 abortion clinics are currently designated to remain in operation.
In her opening remarks, Davis said she was "rising on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans" and called Republican efforts to pass the bill a "raw abuse of power."
Democrats chose Davis, of Fort Worth, to lead the effort because of her background as a woman who had her first child as a teenager and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.
In the hallway outside the Senate chamber, hundreds of women stood in line, waiting for someone to relinquish a gallery seat. Women's rights supporters wore orange T-shirts to show their support for Davis.
The filibuster took down other measures. A proposal to fund major transportation projects as well as a bill to have Texas more closely conform with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for offenders younger than 18 did not get votes. Current state law only allows a life sentence without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.
Twice in the first six hours, anti-abortion lawmakers questioned Davis about the bill, presenting their arguments that it would protect women or that abortions were wrong. Davis answered their questions but did not give up control of the floor.
"This is really about women's health," said Sen. Bob Deuell, who introduced a requirement that all abortions take place in surgical centers. "Sometimes bad things can happen."
Davis questioned then why vasectomies and colonoscopies aren't also required to take place in such clinics. "Because I've been unable to have a simple question answered to help me understand how this would lead to better care for women, I must question the underlying motive for doing so," she said.
Davis read testimony from women and doctors who would be impacted by the changes, but who were denied the opportunity to speak in a Republican-controlled committee. During one heart-wrenching story describing a woman's difficult pregnancy, Davis choked up several times and wiped away tears.
The bill would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and force many clinics that perform the procedure to upgrade their facilities and be classified as ambulatory surgical centers. Also, doctors would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles — a tall order in rural communities.
"If this passes, abortion would be virtually banned in the state of Texas, and many women could be forced to resort to dangerous and unsafe measures," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of the late former Texas governor Ann Richards.