Republicans hold a 99-51 edge in the Texas House — enough of a majority for them to pass almost anything without needing support from Democrats. It's an edge that many in the GOP, including state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, see as a specific mandate to advance conservative legislative priorities.
"Obviously there are more votes on the conservative side of the ledger," Patrick says. "And so issues, particularly dealing with immigration, may finally move forward."
Patrick believes the House should also easily pass long-stalled a bill requiring a picture ID to vote and make redistricting go more smoothly. Those debates will still be highly partisan and contentious, but with the fewest votes in their party's history, there's only so much Democrats can do.
But that’s the House; the Texas Senate is another matter entirely. The rules in the upper chamber still require two-thirds of the members to agree to bring a bill up for vote. That's 21 out of 31 — and there are only 19 Republicans in the Senate. So Democratic senators could, if they wanted to, block every Republican bill.
Patrick doesn't think voters are going to accept the two-thirds rule as an excuse for a failed Republican agenda. "I don't think the Senate should be or can be in a position to say, 'The overwhelming majority of Texans voted for conservative Republicans and we’re going to let 12 Democrats block everything that the people want,'" he says.
Patrick wants to change the rule to from two-thirds to 60 percent, dropping the number of votes needed to bring up a bill to just 18. He only needs 16 votes to change the rule when the Senate convenes in January, and he says he’s already got six or seven so far.
Mark Jones, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Rice University, thinks a change to the rule could be shortsighted. It could allow ultra-conservative bills to become law — and that could hurt the GOP at the ballot box in the future.
"I think [Patrick] is interested far more in getting the numbers that will allow him to do what he wants to do this session," Jones says. "I don’t think he’s thinking in terms of the long term. In particular, it's pretty clear he doesn't think about the long-term health of the Republican Party when he supports some of the very anti-immigrant legislation."
Senate Republicans took a small step toward Patrick's proposal at the start of the 2009 session: They voted to exempt a controversial voter ID bill from the two-thirds rule. The bill passed the Senate, only to die in the Texas House when Democrats blocked it with a multi-day filibuster.