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Texplainer: What is the Blocker Bill?

The blocker bill, a tradition of the Texas Senate, gives the minority party power, because it requires that two-thirds of the Senate must agree before a bill is heard on the floor.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
January 9th, 2013: Sen. Dan Patrick R-Houston who is in favor of eliminating the two-thirds rule, speaks on the Senate floor. Senators have agreed to leave the rule as is.


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Hey, Texplainer: What is the blocker bill, and what does role does it play in the Senate?

For "nearly half a century," according to the Legislative Reference Library, the Texas Senate has routinely placed what is called a blocker bill at the very beginning of its daily calendar. The bill is introduced and passed through committee as quickly as possible, putting it at the top of the Senate's calendar, where it sits for the rest of the session.

No other bill can be passed unless at least two-thirds of the senators agree to "suspend the regular order of business" and skip over the blocker bill.

That "two-thirds rule" effectively empowers voting minorities; on partisan issues, it means the Senate's 19 Republicans need the help of at least one Democrat (or two, once the seat of recently deceased state Sen. Mario Gallegos is filled) to get a bill heard.

Republicans used the leverage when they were in the minority to force a redistricting map into friendlier federal courts. Now it's typically the Democrats who use the rule. Gallegos himself rested in a hospital bed in a room adjacent to the Senate chamber in May 2007 so that he would be on hand to help block consideration of a voter identification bill on the Senate floor.

When a bill or resolution is reported from a Senate committee, it is listed on the daily Senate calendar in the order that it was received. With a blocker bill stuck up at the top, each bill afterward must be considered, technically, out of order, and thus needs a two-thirds vote of senators present to be discussed and voted on.

The idea is to foster bipartisanship, and on Jan. 9, when the two-thirds rule was upheld, senators on both sides expressed support for it, though Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said his colleagues should consider doing away with it.

This session, the blocker bill and resolution were filed by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. SJR 21 would allow the state to accept gifts of "historical value," and would cost the state $108,921. SB 234, also by Eltife, would create a County Park Beautification and Improvement Program. Both were filed on Jan. 23.

In the past, conservative groups like the Harris County Republican Party have opposed the blocker bill because it weakens the Republican majority. In 2003, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tried to get around the bill during a battle over redistricting.

When the Senate rules were approved this year, they did not include any exemptions to the two-thirds rule, which are generally known as "special orders." In the last two sessions, the Senate passed exceptions to the two-thirds rule for votes on voter identification procedures. Last session, lawmakers passed a voter ID bill that is currently being considered by federal courts.

The Bottom Line: The blocker bill, a tradition of the Texas Senate, gives the minority party power, because it requires that two-thirds of the Senate must agree before a bill is heard on the floor.

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