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House Meltdown Ends in GOP Show of Force

A day of parliamentary chaos in the House ended with the passage of Gov. Rick Perry’s newest emergency item: a tort reform bill. And a powerful message from Republicans to Democrats: mess with us at your own peril.

House Democrats, including Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, at microphone, call a point of order on a "sanctuary cities" bill on May 6, 2011.

A day of parliamentary chaos in the House ended with the passage of Gov. Rick Perry’s newest emergency item: a tort reform bill. And a powerful message from Republicans to Democrats: mess with us at your own peril.

With 37 members missing from the House on Saturday morning — eight of them Republicans — Democrats seized a chance to cause some procedural mischief. Only 14 of them would have to walk out to break a quorum. But after almost four hours of what one member called "parliamentary trench warfare,” that tactic backfired. When most of the Democrats walked, Republicans flipped the parliamentary tables on them, voting to suspend all debate on the contentious tort reform bill and immediately passing it.

The move was an aggressive show of the power Republicans can wield in the House with their supermajority. There are 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats in the House. Until today, though, partisan politics haven't been as overtly divisive as in the past. With such small numbers, the Democrats had little choice but to work with Republicans.

But because their numbers are so small, the Democrats' only chance to thwart or stall legislation they don't like is to use parliamentary maneuvers, pointing out technical errors in bills that set the legislation back for a few days. It's a tactic they've been relying on all session. And today Republicans' patience with the constant delays wore out.

"We have some things we have to get done," said state Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. "What you saw today was a message: Here's what we can do if you make us."

With nearly all the Democrats missing from the floor, Republicans easily passed the tort reform measure over the cries of the few remaining. Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, pleaded with his colleagues to allow debate: “Y’all can pass this bill without resorting to this depth of elimination of public debate and suppression of the minority voice.” 

A move to "call the question" was the last stinging blow in a continual fight over parliamentary procedure. For two days, Democrats repeatedly brought up technical points of order to derail Republican measures, including the so-called sanctuary cities bill, which would prohibit cities from preventing law enforcement from asking persons lawfully detained or arrested if they are in the country legally, and a bill that would eliminate a student-teacher ratio requirement in the classroom.

Earlier in the day, to keep Democrats from walking out and breaking the quorum in the House — which would bring business to a standstill — Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, first asked Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, for a roll call. That would keep members inside the chamber with locked doors.

Democrats were outraged. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, went to the back microphone and asked that a roll call include all 150 members — calling on DPS troopers to track down absent members and bring them in to be counted. Chisum backed down and withdrew his motion.

But then Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, asked to suspend all the House rules on Monday. That would end all Democratic efforts to bring up points of order and allow all the controversial measures on the calendar to pass easily.

Meltdown ensued.

Turner said the motion was an "abridgement of everything the House stood for." Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, asked Hunter precisely what rules he intended to suspend. Members on the floor shouted out the answer before Hunter did: "All!"

"We threw out a chair because he didn't follow the rules," said Martinez Fischer. "If you don't want to follow the rules, that's on you." 

Frustrated Democrats one by one began exiting the chamber.

Legislators fought about whether there was a quorum present. Exasperated, Eiland threw his rule book in the air. There was shouting. Republicans chanted, "Vote!" Some Democrats asked the Speaker to adjourn for the day.  

Denying those motions, the Speaker proceeded back to the calendar and on to the contentious tort reform bill. Again, Republicans tried to suspend the rules to prevent the Democrats' parliamentary maneuvers from taking up valuable time in the waning days of the legislative session. "We've got bills dying all over the place," said state Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas.

With the rules suspended, the only stall tactic left to Democrats was to go back to questions about whether a quorum was present. Fed up, state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the author of the tort reform bill, moved to call the previous question and simply vote up or down: no amendments, no debate, no opportunity for Democrats to change the measure, which would require lawsuit losers to pay the legal fees for both sides in certain cases. The bill passed with a vote of 86 to 11.

As the Speaker moved to take up the next item on the agenda, state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, brought up yet another point of order. With both sides clearly entrenched and the mood continuing to deteriorate, Straus decided to adjourn for the day. "There's no question that at this late date of May 7th, there was a very large pent-up frustration out there on the side of those who are not making progress with a legislative agenda," Straus said, talking with the press afterward.

Gallego, perhaps with the understatement of the day, called the mood in the House "not exactly sunny" and said taking the rest of the weekend off to celebrate Mother's Day would allow legislators' tempers to subside. "Every session has a boiling point, and we just hit ours," he said.

When the House reconvenes on Monday, lawmakers are set to take up the contentious bills that Democrats have so far successfully delayed, including sanctuary cities and classroom size limits. Straus said he hopes he's not forced to call for a vote on those bills without debate. "It wasn't my first option, it wasn't my first choice, it wasn't my desire to do it this way," Straus said. "I hope this is the last we see of this this session."

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State government 82nd Legislative Session Brandon Creighton Joe Straus Texas Legislature Trey Martinez Fischer