The Texas Senate family battles through dysfunction

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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You know that feeling after the Thanksgiving family dinner from hell? That’s kind of how it felt Monday as the Texas Senate, which views itself as family, convened for a second special session that will be dominated by Republican efforts to pass an abortion restriction bill.

The noisy chaos that enveloped the chamber when the first special session ended last week still somehow lingered in the room on Monday.

The verbal evidence came as Democrats peppered GOP Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst with pointed parliamentary questions. The nonverbal evidence included a decided decrease in the kind of back-slapping greetings common among senators when they hit the floor.

“Tense” is how Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, described the overall atmosphere.

How unusual a day was it? Sometimes known as the late lieutenant governor because of his periodic battle with the time-space continuum, Dewhurst showed up on time.

He took attendance and called on Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw, long a cooler head amid chaos, to offer the invocation. She delivered with a prayer that was just what democracy ordered.

“We ask you to remove the hurt, the animosity, the pain and the negativity from our hearts and from this chamber,” she prayed. “As we face the challenges of the session, we ask for your strength and your wisdom to proceed with civility and respect for one another. Remind us that we are truly a family and restore this Senate to the body we all love so much.”

Later, Watson said, “God bless Patsy Spaw,” and he praised her as a “unique individual capable of sending that kind of message to the membership.”

The Senate — now 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats and Dew-hurst — likes to see itself as a family that tries to remain civil and polite about all of its members, though each probably has at least one colleague they view as something of a crazy uncle or aunt.

A birth in one member’s family is celebrated by all, just as a death is mourned.

And this year, it meant praise across party lines — there is no partisan aisle in the Texas House or Senate — as the regular session ended May 27 with approval of a state budget that both sides called a product of respectful negotiation.

The Era of Good Feelings, of course, crashed and burned last week when a screaming throng opposed to the abortion bill — and pushed to disruptive tactics by a series of unconscionable parliamentary rulings that killed Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster — inflicted its will on elected officials.

A half-hour before the Senate convened Monday, Davis bemoaned where the Senate now finds itself after a regular session when legislators showed “the ability to work in a bipartisan way to get things done.”

“Everyone, of course, was referring to it as the kumbaya session,” she added, predicting: “It’s going to take some time for us to heal.”

Shortly before he gaveled the Senate into session Monday, Dew-hurst issued a news release you can’t categorize as kumbaya-friendly: “People of good conscience should be deeply concerned that our opponents are willing to undermine our democracy to protect a right they cherish, seemingly above all others: the right to terminate a pregnancy.”

During Monday’s half-hour session, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, still stewing over Dewhurst’s rulings last week as the first special session’s Tuesday midnight deadline approached, asked the lieutenant governor, “What is the official legislative time right now?”

It was a query aimed at getting to how the Senate determines what time it is. Dewhurst said it’s always depended on the clock above the Senate entrance door.

“Here’s the problem,” West replied. “This clock is about two minutes slow, at least by my clock.”

Dewhurst assured West that all efforts would be made to make sure the clock is accurate.

In a family as tense and divided as this one now is, agreement on something as basic as what time it is can be a good start.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.

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