It was the first day of a special legislative session like Texas has never seen.
Hours before either the Texas Senate or the House gaveled in, crowds gathered on the south steps of the Texas Capitol like people jamming the gates of a festival. Long before noon, orange-clad men, women and children (and one or two dogs) arrived at the south steps with banners and picnic blankets and deck chairs. Signs reading “Republicans can’t defetus” bobbed above the crowd. People with shirts saying “I do not yield” milled through the crowd. An airplane buzzed through a cloudless summer sky streaming a “Stand With Wendy” banner behind it. Protest organizers gave out free water. Others gave away coat hangers. Meanwhile Battleground Texas pushed voter registration forms. For hours, the live music and speeches roared, cars on West 11th Street honked as they passed the Capitol, and police, atop horses dressed in riot gear, watched carefully from the sidelines. Media crews scurried through the crowd like something big was going on.
It was, but not necessarily beneath the Capitol dome. At 2 p.m., the Senate and the House gaveled in the second special session of the 83rd legislative session. Bills that had failed to pass in the first special session were on the call: namely, legislation covering transportation, juvenile justice and abortion. It was for the latter that the huge crowd had turned out to protest. A mass rally organized by, among others, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Planned Parenthood, and Whole Women’s Health, prepared a star line-up. The Bright Light Social Hour warmed up the crowd (already warm in the midday heat), Natalie Maines, formerly of The Dixie Chicks played “Not Ready To Be Nice,” Cecile Richards from Planned Parenthood Federation and Ilyse Hogue from NARAL Pro-Choice America also addressed the rally.
Scenes from the Capitol earlier today.
But the star was Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster last week has made her a national celebrity. Decked out in electrifying orange, she charged the crowd. “The promise of Texas is bigger than personal ambition and extremist interests—bigger than one political party,” she said. “Together, we can do what they won’t—we can stand up for each other, stand up for what’s right and stand up for Texas.” The crowd thundered in agreement.
Inside the Capitol, events were less exciting. The Senate and House met for only 30 minutes. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst confirmed that, like the first special session, he’d decided to do away with the Senate’s two-thirds rule, which requires a two-third’s vote to bring up a bill. That rule would be inconvenient for Republicans, because Democrats control one-third of the chamber and could block the abortion measure. Thanks to Dewhurst, the Senate needs only a simple majority to pass the abortion bill—hence the outrage of the orange-clad crowd outside.
Both the Senate and the House recessed until July 9. Meanwhile, the House State Affairs Committee will start hearing public testimony on the omnibus anti-abortion bill, House Bill 2, at 3:30 p.m tomorrow. Perhaps hoping to avoid another citizen’s filibuster, the committee Chair Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) said today that the committee would hear testimonies only until a minute after midnight, but no later. During questioning by Democratic legislators, Cook said he had been urged by many in the House to avoid taking testimony altogether but had opted to give people a chance to be heard. Cook said the bill could be voted on tomorrow night, suggesting that the GOP leadership plans to shepherd the bill through the House quickly.
Throughout the short legislative proceedings, the crowd outside continued to roar. “It’s a festival for women’s rights,” said Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process. Maria Alonso, 31, a first-time volunteer for Battleground Texas, handed out fliers that advertised ancillary events for the day, such as an event to capture video testimonials, presentations about civic engagement or reproductive justice and instructions on how to become a voter registrar.
Anti-abortion activists, dressed in blue, were also at the Capitol today in higher numbers than they had been last week. At midday, the blues lined the floors of the rotunda but their numbers weren’t sufficient to fill every level. Some bill opponents, dressed in orange, joined them there, making a confusing melee of signs saying “Kick Gosnells out of Texas” next to those reading; “#standwithwendy.” At one point, both sides ungraciously took turns to send strains of the hymn “Amazing Grace” up into the Capitol’s cupola. Outside, other bill supporters gathered under a tree to pray, holding aloft a crucifix and straining to hear their own voices above the roars of the orange crowd.
Both supporters of the bill as well as bill opponents are limbering up for a long, noisy and busy special session.