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Opening Day: Chambers to Set Rules, Pick Speaker

House Speaker Joe Straus faces a challenge on the first day of the 83rd Texas Legislature, and the Senate gets another run at a rule that empowers political minorities and sometimes frustrates majorities.

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The Texas House and Senate open their 83rd regular session Tuesday, swearing in members, approving rules, choosing new leaders and listening to opening remarks from Gov. Rick Perry.

Some substance lurks amid the pomp and circumstance. House Speaker Joe Straus, seeking a third term at the helm, is the overwhelming favorite to win Tuesday's vote by House members. But he faces a persistent challenger in Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, a second-term conservative who says the incumbent’s administration is too opaque and too beholden to entrenched interests and political factions in Austin.

In the Senate, an influx of new conservatives — many of whom honed their parliamentary skills in the House — will start with a look at the rules that guide their behavior during the session.

House rules are also in play, but a particular practice in the Senate — best known as the two-thirds rule — has drawn outside attention and criticism for years. In most circumstances, the rule requires consent from two-thirds of the Senate before a proposed law can be debated. In practice, that means a determined minority of 11 senators or more can block most legislation during a session.

With 11 Democrats among its 30 members (an open seat will be filled in a special election later this month), that gives the minority party the ability to stop consideration of proposed laws it opposes.

It’s not always a party split. Any 11 senators, regardless of their partisan ideology, can block a vote. But the party issue is a key one. Some Republicans argue that with their big majority in the Senate, it doesn’t make sense to allow the Democrats to block them. Some Democrats made the same argument when their party was in the majority.

Most of the time, senators on both sides make frequent use of the rule, and much of their individual power derives from it; any senator can be that last vote in a majority or in a minority, and that’s genuine political power. When pressing issues arise, the Republicans have become deft at side-stepping the two-thirds tradition, getting votes over Democratic opposition on partisan proposals such as voter ID and redistricting.

As they did two years ago, conservative activists from around the state are in Austin to urge lawmakers to vote against another term for Straus. The battle has been waged, quietly, on Facebook and Twitter and in political blogs and meetings around the state. But Simpson hasn’t found traction among the membership and there are signs of trouble in his own ranks. Last week, freshman Rep.-elect Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, wrote on Facebook that this year’s challenger has accumulated fewer votes than Ken Paxton, who challenged Straus two years ago. Nobody voted for Paxton — he pulled out — but 15 Republicans in the House voted against Straus in 2011, including 10 who have returned for another term.

“The Speaker’s race in Texas has taken a turn for the worse,” Toth wrote. “Not only does David not have the votes to unseat the Speaker (Now probably less than 20 Republicans) but he’s broken his promise to those who are supporting him. He told supporters he would not go to the floor to force a fight on the floor unless he can win. It looks like we’ve been played (as I was told by another Democrat in the House Wednesday night). They (the Democrats) were just using David for leverage against the Speaker. I was shocked that they would be so brazen as to admit that. I would now be surprized [sic] if he will have more than 15 votes on Tuesday. The Democrats love this. I hate it.”

The question, as with any challenge to a speaker, is whether members think they can beat the incumbent, and whether they think it’s worth voting against an incumbent if they’re not sure of victory. A speaker’s first act, after all, is to hand out committee assignments, putting people in leadership positions or in places where they can affect the policies they care most about. They generally don’t reward their political enemies, and that’s why the leadership vote can be so tense.

Straus has said repeatedly that he has the votes he needs and that he’s confident of another term. Simpson characterizes the race as “a conversation among the members” and is turning away media inquiries.

The House will decide Tuesday. Whether or not Simpson pushes for a head-to-head vote, expect a number of speeches that could illuminate any splits that exist in the 150-member House at the beginning of the 83rd Legislature.

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State government 83rd Legislative Session Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate