A Sunday at the Capitol

Orange-clad abortion bill opponents witness House floor folly

After a House committee on Friday quietly approved three bills that would further demolish a woman’s right to an abortion, the Texas Legislature convened Sunday with the emphasis on Senate Bill 5 (which ultimately passed Monday morning, with the House addition of a “fetal pain” amendment).

Protesters and pro-choice advocates filled the Capitol rotunda. (photo by Shelley Hiam)

The omnibus legislation, which would restrict access to abortion care for women throughout Texas in ways that are frankly unprecedented, has already been the subject of much discussion (and the Legislature’s GOP lawmakers’ avoidance of that discussion has also been the subject of national attention), and that discussion was back on Sunday: The House met to vote on the bill.

Hundreds of demonstrators were back, too. On Thursday, the opposition’s objective was a so-called citizen’s filibuster, in which hundreds of Texans would exercise their right to give personal testimony in opposition to the legislation. On Sunday, the objective was less participatory: just to witness what was happening, to crowd the House spectator gallery with opponents of the bill, and to “literally stare them down” when the Republican lawmakers entered the chamber, as an organizer from Planned Parenthood put it. Chanting and cheering were discouraged; silent displays of support – American Sign Language applause – were encouraged, as were just physically placing your orange-clad body in a seat in the Gallery.

The bill’s supporters, meanwhile, wore blue. Many of them had red duct tape somewhere on their persons, on their lapels or over their mouths (because apparently having every one of your wildest legislative fantasies handed to you by your representatives in a special session is somehow being silenced) or, for a few young men who oppose abortion rights, waiting outside the spectator gallery before the start of the hearing, around their hands, which they’d hold up in a frankly Nazi-like fashion.

The doors opened at 1:45. Some in line had been there for hours already at that point. Elaine Adkison and Tamara Crail-Walters had driven in from Lufkin at 7 o’clock in the morning, but they were second in line. “The church people were here when we got here,” Adkison said, gesturing to a crowd of six in front of her. Still, any equivalence between the number of the bill’s orange-clad opponents and its blue-clad supporters would have been demonstrably false; the rotunda, on all four floors, was packed with orange and only occasionally dotted with blue. Inside the gallery, the orange sections similarly outnumbered the blue at least 10 to one.

All of which might sound encouraging for those who wanted to see the bill defeated, except that this is still the Texas Legislature and that sort of “majority rules” is not the way things are done.

If Thursday was a version of The Hangover, then Sunday was The Hangover Part 2: The same jokes, just not funny anymore, because we’ve heard them all before, and the surprise is gone. On Thursday, when House Committee Chair Byron Cook called for an end to public testimony with hundreds yet to speak because he was beginning to find it “repetitive,” it was shocking and unprecedented. By late Sunday night, when the House Democrats found themselves unable to get so much as a “I decline questions, and move to table” from SB 5’s House sponsor, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, in response to their amendments (Speaker Joe Straus spoke for her, instead), it was merely disappointing. When Straus called for an end to amendments at one o’clock in the morning, with 10 to 15 amendments left to be debated – once more circumventing the process by which bills are typically heard in Texas – the boos and hisses from the gallery lacked the bite of a “can they really do that?” We’d already seen how this movie ended; they could, they would, and they did.

It wasn’t always so bleak at the Capitol on Sunday.

In the early part of the day, hope sprang. A parliamentary point of order was raised immediately after the House convened; restless people packed into the Capitol in their orange t-shirts were assured by organizers that “the less that’s happening right now, the better for us that is.” About 500 people packed the House gallery to capacity, most of them opponents of the bill; hundreds more filled the Legislative Conference Center as an overflow room, or watched the proceedings from the auditorium via closed-circuit television. Once more, the internet and people from around the country rallied to keep people fed and caffeinated, with dozens of pizzas, coffee containers, and boxes of Tiff’s Treats delivered. Eventually, people got creative: East Side Pies started converting pizza orders to salads; Royal Blue Grocery sent over boxes of fresh fruit; East Village Market brought vegan pastries. The Legislative Conference Center served as a de facto staging area, while the auditorium and gallery were occupied by people who were ready to observe the arcane parliamentary game being played by the two sides of the debate. It was possible to spend a good portion of the evening just running from the Legislative Conference Center to the Capitol doors, retrieving pizzas from a delivery driver’s car, and back again.

All of it made for an energized day at the Capitol. Liberals in Texas have become accustomed to frustration in political activism. There just haven’t been a lot of victories. But throughout the day, there was an honest belief – “We could win this!” – that kept the spirits high and people coming in throughout the night. It wasn’t uncommon for people to run into their neighbors, or friends who had never been particularly active politically, or, like, their dental hygienist or something. If you were a follower of Austin’s improv community, you might run into Kaci Beeler and Kelli Bland and Curtis Luciani and Amy Gentry as you scarfed down your salad. If you followed local theater, you could bump into playwrights Sarah Saltwick and Lydia Nelson. This wasn’t a day for jaded activists to moan about the process, and to recycle the tired chants of “Hey, ho, hey, ho (whatever we don’t like) has got to go!” By the time your side starts chanting in protest, you’ve probably already lost, and this was something different.

Which, of course, made the eventual end to the day even more cruel. There were parliamentary games played all day long, with points of order called so often that people eventually stopped giggling when they saw a tweet announcing that a given representative had “brought up new POO.” After an initial victory, in which House Republicans spent nearly two hours debating a point of order that would require them to take a two-hour adjournment, before eventually agreeing to take that adjournment, Democratic points of order were often overruled. Supporters in the gallery were silenced, and then threatened with arrest if they so much as twinkled their fingers in a silent ASL applause motion of support.

At one point Houston Rep. Jessica Farrar – who had become something of a hero to the bill’s opponents – addressed the crowd in the overflow room to keep spirits high, explaining that they had a whole bag of tricks. “If you see some things tonight that look weird, trust me,” she said. “We have really smart people on our side who are really good at parliamentary procedure.” Motions to table the bill based on an obscure point of order – which would effectively kill it – were raised by a Democratic rep, then struck down as a given point of order was determined by the parliamentarians insufficient to stop the process, after all.

And then, once the bill came to the floor for debate, it came down to the amendments. House Democrats introduced nearly 30 amendments to the bill, each of which required its own debate and question period, and each of which typically included a period to ask questions of Rep. Laubenberg, as the bill’s sponsor. These amendments weren’t particularly radical – allowing more time for clinics to meet guidelines outlined in the bill, for example – but after one ostensibly reasonable amendment, the tone of the evening changed.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson introduced an amendment that would require the 20-week-ban – the so-called “fetal pain” restriction – to include an exception in the case of rape or incest. To illustrate her point, Thompson brought out a wire coat hanger, and held it in view of Laubenberg and the rest of the House during the entire debate on her amendment. And, finally, when it was Laubenberg’s turn to speak, she added another doozy to the “Republicans-say-something-outrageous-about-rape” list. This time, Laubenberg spoke of emergency room “rape kits,” despite apparently being unclear about what these kits actually do.

“In an emergency room, they have what’s called a rape kit,” Laubenberg explained, “Where a woman can get cleaned out,” apparently indicating that a rape kit contained some sort of abortifacient (like, perhaps, the RU486 pill that her bill would make more difficult to administer) that would shut that whole thing down in the event of a rape. Laubenberg added that a rape kit is "equivalent to a D&C" –- that is, an abortion.

A rape kit, of course, is actually an evidence-collection tool. It does no "cleaning out." But after Laubenberg’s statement – which, if it’s a slow weekend, might well land the representative on a Daily Show reel – House Republicans began restricting access to the bill’s sponsor during the debate.

The result, perhaps ironically, actually was rather redundant: Laubenberg would not make herself available for questions despite requests from each amendment’s author, and Speaker Straus would declare that she had moved to table the amendment for her, bringing up a vote to table the amendment that would pass among strict party lines. During each amendment’s debate, Democratic lawmakers would interrogate each other ostensibly about the purpose of the amendment, but mostly they would remark to one another how the refusal of the bill’s sponsor to make herself available to questions was unheard of, and perhaps a violation of House rules.

Ultimately, though, a point of order on whether Laubenberg was allowed to avoid questions and therefore allowed to avoid the possibility of saying something else outrageous enough to land her on the late-night shows was overruled. Whether it was against the rules or not became a redundant question. At that point, all that was left was for Representative Bryan Hughes to make a motion for an end to debate, and for the House Republicans to approve that motion.

By two o’clock in the morning – over 12 hours from the start of the day – there was little reason left to hang around. The entire spectacle had devolved into a depressing sort of kabuki theater, as the final arguments were made: a Democratic firebrand like Sylvester Turner, Dawnna Dukes, or Senfronia Thompson would make an impassioned statement excoriating the Republicans for rushing the bill through a special session for reasons that are still unclear or for endangering the health of women throughout the state, and it would be roundly ignored by Republican lawmakers who would talk over them, or fiddle with their phones while they spoke. In the end, all of the arguments being made over the abortion omnibus bills are meaningless, which made even the several hundred orange-wearers still at the Capitol by 3am unlikely to risk arrest with their ASL applause. If the arguments have been heard, they’ve been rejected along strictly party lines.

Sunday was a day with ups and downs for opponents of the abortion, but those ups and downs ultimately have very little to do with the actual debate, which is just a shadow play cover for the actual battle being fought, which is parliamentary – and the rules of that game are so arcane that it’s really hard to know who to cheer for or when. In fact, while the House did vote to pass the bill to its third reading (yet another step in this inscrutable process), the fact that it happened at three o’clock in the morning on Monday, instead of at 11:59 on Sunday, may turn out to be an important factor. The third reading itself did not occur until 10:08am Monday -- which means the Senate cannot take it up again until the same time Tuesday, with a midnight deadline for final passage.

In either case, all of the impressive talk, embarrassing gaffes, and inspiring speeches mean very little. The clock is speeding toward the finish in the special session, and the only talk that really matters is the talk of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. It’s yet another procedural move to stop this thing before it crosses the finish line, and it’s a lot harder to applaud when you don’t know the rules of the game.

See Part 1 of Dan Solomon’s three-part series on SB5, “‘Let Her Speak!’”
See Part 3 of Dan Solomon’s three-part series on SB5, “A Victory By the People.”

For more images, see “Texas Lege’s War on Women” on our Photo Galleries page.

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Abortion, Texas Legislature, special session, Jessica Farrar, Jodie Laubenberg, Senfronia Thompson, sb5

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