Republican and Democratic members of the Texas congressional delegation are discussing a possible compromise designed to cool off the overheated politics of congressional redistricting by dividing the expected spoils once U.S. Census figures are in and the reapportionment process begins in 2011, two members of the delegation say.
U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, told me the plan on the table would split the expected four-seat gain in Texas congressional seats into two for the Republicans and two for the Democrats, shifting the focus of a likely fight from which party gets what to where the new districts are drawn. That would take the current make-up of the delegation from 20 Republicans and 12 Democrats to 22 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Smith said he would be in Austin over the next few days presenting the possible compromise to Speaker Joe Straus and Gov. Rick Perry. Cuellar says he briefed Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst when they were together in South Texas earlier this year. "I talked to both of them," Cuellar said. "They said, 'If you guys come up with something bipartisan, we'll support you.'"
A spokesman for Straus says that while the Speaker recalls the conversation with Cuellar and appreciates the delegation's work, it's too early in the process to be considering any compromises.
Dewhurst says he told Cuellar that the delegation coming together to produce a proposed compromise in bipartisan fashion would be "a big step forward" but that he couldn't commit to supporting any plan that he hasn't seen.
The last time redistricting was a live issue in Texas, in 2003, the Legislature ground to a halt, with Democratic members skipping town in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart Republican reapportionment plans. "It wasn't a win-win — it was a win-lose," Cuellar said. "Republicans made all the decisions and Democrats were left in the dark as the lines were drawn. This time it's going to be different. We're trying to do something bipartisan."
The "something" hasn't been worked out in detail beyond the prospective agreement in principle that each party would get an equal number of new seats. "Generally speaking," Cuellar said, "if we do get four, we're hoping that two go to the Republicans and two go to the Democrats." He was quick to note that other specifics haven't been addressed: "We've just been talking about concepts. We don't want to get into where things go, where we draw the new lines."
But Cuellar said he's mindful of the ethnic makeup of the new population that the Census Bureau is likely to report. "If you look at the numbers, Texas has grown by approximately 4 million people in the last decade. Seventy percent of that growth is Hispanics. I joked around with Lamar: 'Well, that means 3 out of those 4 should be Hispanic seats.'"
Of course, all this assumes that the expected number of new seats will actually come to pass. One potential monkey wrench, Smith says, is that the fourth seat hinges on how much growth the Census Bureau ascribes to Texas, which in turn depends on how many Texans return their Census forms. Smith said the state was about expected to be 40,000 residents ahead of the threshhold for getting that fourth seat but could just as easily not get it if the numbers don't go our way.
If it ends up being three rather than four seats, Cuellar says, the proposed compromise would be "one and one and a swing district."
It also assumes that the members of the Texas Legislature, and not just their leaders, agree to such a compromise, as they and not the state's members of Congress are the ones who control the redistricing process. "Being in the state House for fourteen years, I know that the power goes to the Legislature," Cuellar says. "Utlimately, they're going to decide where the lines are. But because we're talking about congressional redistricting, hopefully they'll give us due consideration."