AUSTIN -- Senate Republicans late Tuesday pushed ahead with legislation requiring Texans to show photo identification to vote. Democrats and minority groups charged that the bill would create one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country.
Meeting as a "committee of the whole" -- a parliamentary procedure which had the effect of expediting the bill -- senators heard testimony from witnesses on both sides of the issue before voting 20-12 to recommend Senate passage, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst joining the chamber's 19 Republicans in support of the measure. Democrats, as expected, unanimously opposed the bill.
The vote sets the stage for a late-night session that begins at 9:20 tonight, when senators plan to consider at least 26 Democratic amendments and move toward a final vote, which is likely to come well after midnight.
Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the bill's sponsor, said the bill will probably undergo changes before the final vote and suggested that Republicans and Democrats might find common ground on some items.
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Opponents of the bill, conceding inevitable passage in the Republican-controlled Legislature, are gathering ammunition for a possible legal challenge of the measure, which must receive clearance by the Justice Department for compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Dewhurst said he is confident that the bill will get Justice Department approval and said legislative leaders have been consulting with the state attorney general's office to make sure they are on firm legal ground.
Gov. Rick Perry, who put the bill on a fast track for passage, joined other Republicans in hailing the legislation as a safeguard to eliminate voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the ballot box. After an opening day of testimony and debate that spilled into the night, Republicans clearly had the votes to pass the bill in the Senate. "We know we're not going to win it," acknowledged Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojsa, D-McAllen.
Regardless of the outcome, however, Democrats went on the attack and sought to slow the bill's progress by firing question after question at Fraser.
Parliamentary tactics by Democrats in the House killed a 2009 bill when that chamber was more narrowly divided.
But this year, solid Republican majorities on both sides of the state Capitol and priority treatment from the Republican leadership seemingly guarantee its passage.
Republicans control 101 of the 150 House seats and 19 of the 31 Senate Seats.
Dewhurst put the bill on the Senate agenda this week after Perry designated it emergency legislation that he wants lawmakers to enact within the first 60 days of their four-month-session.
Senate passage would make it the first bill to clear either chamber since the session started Jan. 11.
"I think it's an important issue," Perry told reporters. Getting the bill "on the table" early in the session would prevent partisan "shenanigans" that brought down the bill two years ago, he said.
Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, chairman of the House Elections Committee, has introduced similar legislation in the House.
Acceptable forms of identification under Fraser's bill include a driver's license, a U.S. military identification card, a U.S. citizenship certificate and a U.S. passport, all of which contain photographs.
Voters could also use a personal identification card obtained from the Department of Public Safety. Voters 70 or older will be exempt from the requirements.
Two senators representing Tarrant County differed sharply in their assessment of the bill.
"I haven't talked to one constituent who doesn't think we should pass this bill," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, adding that the bill is needed to "protect the integrity of the ballot box."
But Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said the bill "prevents qualified voters from exercising their constitutional rights at the polls in the name of reducing fictional cases of fraud."
Luis Figeroa, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Fraser's bill would create "by far the most restrictive" voter ID requirements in the country and continue a "long history" of voter discrimination in Texas.
Opponents of the bill also signaled the likelihood of a legal challenge if the law passes and predicted that the measure could run afoul of the Justice Department.
Witnesses representing groups including the League of Women Voters of Texas, the NAACP, and the League of United Latin American Citizens testified against the measure, saying it could disenfranchise minorities, the working poor and students.
Fraser said the bill is similar to photo ID laws in Georgia and Indiana. Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief, 512-476-4294