Republicans strengthened their grip on the Texas Senate on Wednesday, shrugging off nearly 70 years of tradition with a rule change that knocks out the Democrats’ ability to block legislation on party-line votes.
Republicans hold a 20-11 majority in the upper chamber, which under the old “two-thirds” rule would have left them one vote short of being able to bring up bills for debate without support from at least one Democrat. The tradition ensured that, even though it could be outvoted on every issue, the minority party could block the most controversial bills from coming to the floor.
By reducing the required number to 19, the GOP seized a controlling majority over just about every key Senate vote this session, with a small cushion to spare. Though it’s a small numerical change, it could have a huge impact, leaving Democrats powerless to block bills or force compromise on issues such as school choice, gun rights, immigration and state spending.
Democrats said the change will strike a blow to the democratic process.
“I think it’s a sad day for the Senate and one that we will look back on with regret,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.
The change was near the top of new Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s wish list. The former state senator, a Tea Party favorite, first sought the change in 2007 but it was voted down 30-1 on his first day in the Legislature.
Less than a decade later, Patrick is the presiding officer over the chamber and delivered on a promise to consolidate GOP voting power after the party’s sweeping success in the November elections.
“It will help us deliver a conservative agenda a majority of Texas voters elected us to pass,” Patrick said after the vote.
Republicans needed only a majority vote to make the change. The 20-10 vote broke mostly along party lines: Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville was the only Democrat to join Republicans in support. One Republican, Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, did not vote.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who pushed for the change to 19, said it still didn’t go far enough for some Republicans, who wanted straight “majority rule” — or 16 members — to pass bills. Eltife noted that bringing bills to a vote will still require a “supermajority.”
Enacted in 1947
The two-thirds rule had been in place since 1947 and was among the few tools left for Democrats to force negotiations with Republicans, who have controlled the Senate since 1999 and have held majorities in both the House and Senate since 2003.
The staid Senate is steeped in tradition, however, which had helped thwart attempts to change the rules in recent sessions.
The Republican-led Senate has carved out special exceptions to the voting rule several times over the last decade, most notably to pass voter identification and redistricting laws that are being challenged in court.
In 2003, Senate Democrats fled to New Mexico over a redistricting vote, effectively shutting down Senate business for a month before returning.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chided Republicans by noting that they had found plenty of ways to get around the rule in the past.
“I can’t think of anything you haven’t been able to do,” Whitmire said.
The rule change is part of a reform package that also reduces committees and limits the honorary recognitions and resolutions that members can make on the Senate floor.
Revenge on Davis?
Democratic activists who support abortion rights blasted the Senate’s action and suggested it was sparked in part by Republicans’ desire to prevent a repeat of what then-Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, did two years ago.
“These rules were passed in response to Wendy Davis’ heroic filibuster and the thousands of pro-choice activists who spoke out against anti-abortion legislation in public hearings during the 2013 special sessions. Anti-choice senators saw the power of Texans’ voices in 2013, so now they are trying to silence us any way they can,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement.
Texas Democratic Party spokesman Javier Gamboa, agreed, adding, “Patrick is using cheap political tactics to further his toxic and divisive agenda.”
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Texas Tribune.