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For Democrats, Abortion Debate and Filibuster Create a Line in the Sand

Texas Democrats had a big win on a big stage Tuesday night. Can they keep it going?

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Ft. Worth, waves to the gallery while leaving the Senate chamber after midnight on June 26, 2013.

For Democrats, the next question is a big one: Was that the Alamo?

The state’s minority party had been having a bad month. A relatively genteel regular legislative session addressing issues like the budget, water, taxes and education gave way to a special session focused on a couple of deeply contentious political issues: redistricting and regulation of abortion.

The Democrats knew they would get hammered on redistricting. Led by Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, a mostly Republican Legislature was being asked to ratify legislative and Congressional maps that could protect the Republican majority for a decade.

It was all Democrats could do to force a handful of public hearings around the state, to try to raise issues that might be useful when the courts resume the long argument over the district lines. The votes were lopsided and predictable, and in favor of the Republicans. The governor quickly signed the maps into law, as expected, and the next stop will be a federal courthouse.

But the debates on abortion were different. They started late in the session, not really getting under way until the last week or so. Legislative deadlines enable legislative minorities, who know they will eventually lose when an issue comes to a vote but can sometimes delay things long enough to prevent that losing vote from ever taking place.

Here is another thing: The general public does not take part in stadium-size rallies on political maps. It is rarely difficult to find a good seat at a public hearing on redistricting.

Abortion is different, and the proposed bill had several flash points, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and higher standards for abortion clinics that only five of the state’s 42 facilities would have met without expensive upgrades.

What was supposed to be a rallying point for anti-abortion conservatives instead proved to be a bigger draw for liberals in favor of reproductive rights. Demonstrators showed up in growing numbers as the various debates went on, in committees, in the House and then in the Senate.

Because of some combination of good strategy, bad strategy and dumb luck, the legislation got to the full Senate on the last day of the special session, within range of a filibuster.

Cue the Democrats.

The political hero, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, largely carried the debate, preventing a vote until the last two hours of the day. Other senators picked it up from there, arguing methodically and slowly — emphasis on slowly — about rules that were being used to shut down the filibuster, about the legislative process and about the conduct of the Senate.

A procedural fight is the kind of thing that tempts high school and college students to cut classes and shoot pool. But it was made gripping by the deep passions on all sides of the debate, by the partisan underpinnings and by the stakes for players like Davis and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Do not forget to throw in a large crowd packing the Senate gallery and the Capitol itself, and the added twist of running news, commentary and goading via social media.

In the hours around midnight, the online video audience topped 200,000. Twitter hashtags linked to the event became top trends. People were energized, making late-night promises to take what they had seen and become politically active.

The conservatives thought the liberals had manipulated the rules to delay the vote until the bitter end. When it finally happened, forensic work would later show, it was three minutes past the midnight deadline. That killed the bill and prompted the governor to call another special session starting next week.

The Democrats were accusing the Republicans of interpreting the Senate’s rules in a way most beneficial to their side, of trumping up rulings to cut off the filibuster and of favoring their own senators’ procedural requests.

There is some truth to both arguments. But it turned out to be the Democrats’ night, punctuated by a question during the final moments of debate that crystallized the proceedings the way that Col. William B. Travis’s line in the sand rallied revolutionaries who went on to win Texas from Mexico.

“At what point,” asked state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, “must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”

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