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The End Game: Special Session Wraps Up Today

The House couldn't get the votes it needed to suspend the rules to take up the TSA anti-groping bill before the clock runs out today.

The House chamber below a mostly empty gallery during the final days of the special session on June 27, 2011.

Updated 12:17 p.m. 

The House couldn't get the votes it needed to suspend the rules to take up the TSA anti-groping bill before the clock runs out today. That means lawmakers are poised to adjourn without tackling two of Gov. Rick Perry's priorities, the TSA bill and sanctuary cities. 

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The Texas Legislature on Tuesday passed several crucial bills to balance the state's budget, save money on health care, and reform the claims process for the state's insurer of last resort before hurricane season, but it will take a few more steps for the House to follow the Senate and adjourn sine die — once and for all — by the end of today.

It became crystal clear last night that the lower chamber isn't too happy about the upper body's decision to rush out of the Capitol. Today, they will go it alone and decide whether and how to save the last bit of legislation. 

As House Speaker Joe Straus exited Tuesday evening, he said the chamber's end game hinges on two remaining bills: HB 79, an omnibus funding bill for the courts, and SB 29, the upper chamber's version of a bill to criminalize invasive pat-downs by federal officers working for the Transportation Security Administration. The funding bill can be approved with a simple majority vote at the request of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa. However, it will die if representatives decide they don't like amendments added by the Senate. Straus said the bill is not eligible to be considered until this morning. He doesn't expect a fight, but again, the House isn't pleased with the Senate's early adjournment. What's more, HB 27's Senate sponsor is Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, named by the governor as the man who killed a late deal to save a ban on sanctuary cities last weekend.

Tensions boiled over during the vote on SB 1, a major revenue-generating bill that also contained provisions for cutting public education by $4 billion statewide. The House initially voted it down, but passed the measure on the second try, after GOP members met in a lengthy emergency caucus. The first time time around, they blasted several amendments in the bill, but without the Senate around to negotiate, they were stuck with what was in front of them. 

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said many of the House's initial ideas "fell on deaf ears" in the upper chamber. In addition, state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said members complained in the emergency caucus meeting about the Senate's decision to leave out the sanctuary cities ban. It also appeared many lawmakers still misunderstood some of the provisions in the massive bill. Branch told reporters Gov. Rick Perry intervened to say lawmakers had done their best on the sanctuary cities issue. He followed up by releasing a statement blaming the failure to pass the measure squarely on Duncan's shoulders, making the Lubbock Republican the villain of the piece.

The Senate had approved legislation including the sanctuary cities ban more than a week earlier, but it stalled in the House. Over the weekend, House supporters of the sanctuary cities bill tried to get it attached to SB 1, the fiscal matters bill, but Duncan blocked their efforts.

"Unfortunately, SB1 Conference Committee Chairman Robert Duncan ultimately refused to allow language related to the ban of sanctuary cities into the final version of Senate Bill 1," Perry said in a prepared statement. "Because of this action, the special session will not provide our peace officers with the discretion they need to adequately keep Texans safe from those that would do them harm.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, immediately after the governor released his statement blaming Duncan, the 150-member body tried again to pass the fiscal matters conference committee report. This time, more than 20 Republican lawmakers switched their votes, enough to send the bill to the governor's desk for a signature.

So long as lawmakers are still working on it, nothing's dead while the Legislature is still in session — even if it's only half of the Legislature. Even so, the much-debated TSA anti-groping measure is in serious trouble.

Perry didn't add it to the agenda until last week, after a YouTube video surfaced of the governor being questioned about the issue at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Perry told the man who asked him about it that the legislation didn't have enough support to be considered in the time left in the special session.

Turns out there was still time, once Perry added it to the agenda. Then the House, which had planned to vote on the legislation last Friday, didn't have a quorum for the vote, or an agreement on the bill. That pushed it into the last three days of the session, a particular hardship on the Senate, where a filibuster in the final hours can kill a piece of legislation. The House tentatively approved the measure on Monday and planned to finally vote on Tuesday, leaving the Senate only a day to work on it — and with a quiet promise of a filibuster from at least one senator.

Instead, the Senate decided the House should work with the Senate version instead of the other way around, and the upper body adjourned "sine die,"  meaning senators ended the special session on their side of the building and left the House to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

The House rushed a committee hearing on the Senate bill, setting up a series of votes on the TSA bill for Wednesday. First, House members will have to reconsider their tentative vote on Monday of their own version, pulling the legislation one step backwards in the process. At that point, they can replace the House bill with the Senate bill and vote twice — tentatively, and then finally — to send the legislation to the governor's desk.

But because they have to do all of that in one day — Wednesday is the last day of the special session — they have to win permission for a vote on the anti-groping bill from four-fifths of the membership to get it through the House. That's 120 votes, in a House with 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats.

There's a question of attendance, with the major, must-do bills out of the way: It takes at least 100 representatives to constitute a quorum in the House, and leaders have to get enough people to show up for work not only to make a quorum but to suspend the constitutional rule to make it possible to pass the bill in just one day.

It's not insurmountable, but it's a tall hurdle. And is it important enough to force another special session? Probably not — lawmakers had to pass the fiscal bill to make the budget work, and Gov. Perry promised another session if they didn't pass a Texas Windstorm Insurance Association reform. Both of those passed, and Perry isn't likely to call them back for TSA or anything else that crashes because of the dispute between the House and the Senate.

"The Senate wasn't its usual good partner," Straus said after admitting that he shut out the Senate's messenger earlier in the day to prevent them from leaving. "They were in an anxious mood — ironically, I suppose — to hurry to the airport."

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