The Brief: May 9, 2011

House debate hit dramatic heights on Saturday in what could go down as the Great Mother's Day Fight of 2011.

State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, votes 'aye' to table certain instructions to conferees on HB1 budget bill on May 6, 2011.
State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, votes 'aye' to table certain instructions to conferees on HB1 budget bill on May 6, 2011.  Bob Daemmrich

The Big Conversation:

House debate hit dramatic heights on Saturday in what could go down as the Great Mother's Day Fight of 2011.

Threats of a walkout, an attempt to lock members inside the House chamber and a tossed rule book (literally) punctuated the most striking display of Republican power seen in the Legislature this session — and what many have called one of the tensest days they've ever seen in the statehouse.

The drama began Friday after Democrats — looking to run out the clock with just over three weeks left in the session — used procedural objections to derail two major pieces of Republican-backed legislation: the so-called sanctuary cities bill, which would keep cities from preventing law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration law, and a bill that would eliminate a student-teacher class-size ratio.

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On Saturday, with Mother's Day looming, and 37 members missing from the House floor as lawmakers returned to debate a tort reform bill, Democrats toyed with another procedural trick: Only 14 of them would have to walk out to break the House's two-thirds quorum required for debate.

But Republicans, who vastly outnumber Democrats in the House, were fed up. Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, asked Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, for a roll call, which would lock the chamber's doors to prevent members from leaving. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, responded by calling on state troopers to track down absent members and bring them to the chamber for the roll call. Chisum backed down, withdrawing his motion.

Exasperated Republicans then threatened to suspend House rules on Monday to prevent any further Democratic stalling. Democrats balked: Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, threw the House rules book in the air; Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, reminded Straus that House members ousted former House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, for disregarding parliamentary tradition.

Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe responded for the Republicans, pushing to suspend debate and force a vote on the tort reform bill, which would require losers in lawsuits to pay the legal fees for both sides in certain cases. The bill tentatively passed, 86-11, without debate.

"Every session has a boiling point, and we just hit ours," said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

Straus later said he hoped he wouldn't have to call for votes without debate on any pending legislation, like the sanctuary cities and class-size bills, which return to the House today. "It wasn't my first option, it wasn't my first choice, it wasn't my desire to do it this way," he said. "I hope this is the last we see of this this session."

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Texas Monthly's Paul Burka called the showdown "one of the wildest days I have seen in the House."

And how was your Mother's Day?

Culled:

  • Today is the deadline to pass House bills out of committees. Any legislation that isn't out of committee by the end of today is likely dead, like House Bill 529, which would require presidential candidates to release their birth certificates to appear on the Texas ballot. Legislators can attempt to revive bills, though, by adding them as amendments to other legislation with momentum.
  • A House committee on Friday night approved legislation that would allow slot machines at racetracks and Indian reservations — but not, to the ire of a major lobby, permit the construction of casinos.

"What you saw today was a message: Here's what we can do if you make us." — State Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, on Democratic attempts to stall debate that led to Saturday's House meltdown

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