Two years after drawing national attention with a filibuster, state Sen. Wendy Davis began another talk-a-thon that could bring down a contentious abortion regulation bill as the special legislative session grinds to a close.The Fort Worth Democrat began her filibuster at 11:18 a.m. She made her decision after the package of abortion restrictions cleared a final House vote and headed toward the Senate. Republican leaders are scrambling to pass Senate Bill 5 before Tuesday's midnight adjournment but acknowledge that a Democratic filibuster could kill the bill. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said Davis, a mother of two and an outspoken advocate on women’s issues, will be the lead participant because of the bill’s importance to women. “There’s an assault on women in this state and this legislation is a prime example of that,” said Watson. “It’s important that a woman who’s the mother of two daughters will be the one standing. We will all be there providing assistance and help.” The second filibuster of her career — which could stretch as long as 13 hours — is likely to further stoke Davis’ persona as a potential Democratic candidate for governor or other statewide office. Davis is currently running for re-election in her Tarrant County Senate district but has not ruled out interest in a future statewide race. Outnumbered Democrats in both chambers have unleashed a series of stalling tactics as part of their efforts to thwart the abortion bill. Republicans say they are pushing the measure to improve health standards in the state’s 42 abortion clinics. Democrats denounce the bill as an overt political move that would dramatically limit access to abortions for thousands of Texas women. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, conceded that the prospects for passage are looking dim in the face of the filibuster but said he planned to keep working to change votes. “I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. Dewhurst blamed the House for not moving faster to get the bill back to the Senate. If the bill had reached the Senate by Sunday, he said, Democrats would have faced a much longer filibuster that could have been prohibitive. By contrast, he said, “most of us could stand up for 13 hours and talk.” Davis confirmed that she informed Dewhurst of her filibuster plans shortly after House passage of the bill. Dewhurst told Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, in a letter that Davis advised him “that she is going to filibuster SB5.” Senate Democrats on Monday blocked Republican efforts to suspend a 24-hour rule to take the bill up early, meaning the measure won’t be eligible for consideration until about 11 a.m. Tuesday. Davis said Democrats are willing to help pass two other bills — a juvenile justice bill and a transportation funding measure — in advance of the abortion package. The filibuster presumably would stretch until the clock runs out at midnight. “We’re united in our efforts to kill this piece of legislation,” Davis said. Filibusters are essentially parliamentary stalling tactics in which a senator seizes the floor in an uninterrupted talk-a-thon aimed at killing a piece of legislation. The tactics impose stringent physical demands, requiring lawmakers to stay in place without leaning on their desks and to talk or read for hours. They are forbidden to leave for bathroom breaks and often rely on so-called “astronaut packs” to dispose of human waste. The world’s filibuster record belongs to former State Sen. Bill Meier, who is now a justice on the Fort Worth-based Second Court of Appeals. As a Tarrant County senator from Hurst, Meier filibustered a bill for 43 hours in 1977. Davis, a former Fort Worth city council member, won election to the Senate in 2008, defeating long-time incumbent Kim Brimer to represent District 10 in the southern half of Tarrant County. She overcame a fierce Republican assault to win re-election to a second term in 2012, defeating then-State Rep. Mark Shelton of Fort Worth. In 2011, she drew widespread media coverage — and scorn from many Republicans — when she forced lawmakers into a special session by filibustering a Republican budget to protest more than $5 billion in education cuts. This year, Davis has helped lead Democratic opposition against the abortion measure, which has emerged as the Legislature’s most polarizing issue after Gov. Rick Perry added it to the call of the special session.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery