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Sharper Elbows in a Special Session

The comity of the regular session might disappear in a special session: The rules change to the disadvantage of the Democrats, and the agenda changes to the advantage of the governor.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (left), House Speaker Joe Straus and Gov. Rick Perry met with reporters on Jan. 9, 2013, the second …

Texas lawmakers got out of the Kumbaya session alive, ducking most of the opportunities for bitter fights by ducking most of the issues that cause legislative fights to turn bitter.

They didn’t mess with immigration, abortion laws, voting laws or school vouchers — issues that divide lawmakers along ideological lines and make for contentious gatherings like the 2011 legislative session.

That peace might end. After the regular session came to a close on Monday, Gov. Rick Perry immediately called lawmakers back. He wants them to ratify redistricting maps drawn by federal judges for use in the 2012 elections. And he has the power to add to the agenda as the 30-day special session proceeds.

The list of items he might add is almost as long as the line of lawmakers and other supplicants asking for additions. And that’s the measure of his power now that the regular session has ended. The control of the agenda moves from the offices of the legislative leaders into the office of the executive branch.

That shift, along with a potential change in legislative math in the special session, means that some of the people thwarted in the regular session now have the upper hand, and that the back seat is full of people who had been in front.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for instance, might get a chance to deliver some of the pelts he promised Texas conservatives, including new limits on abortions and allowing concealed handguns on college campuses.

In a special session, he’s pushing the Senate to get rid of its so-called two-thirds rule, which requires approval from two-thirds of the senators before something can come up for a vote. On partisan issues, it means Democrats have enough votes to block the Republican majority.

As you might imagine, that rule can be frustrating to the majority, though it sometimes provides cover for not taking votes they would rather not take. It has certainly been frustrating to Dewhurst, who blames the Democrats for the absence of action on the issues he especially wanted to advance.

A special session plays to the disadvantage of other regular session winners. That would include the Democrats — who could, should they wish, flaunt the lieutenant governor’s complaint as proof of their own value. They make up barely more than a third of each house of the Legislature, and yet they have had outsize influence so far this year.

The newly disadvantaged could also include a prominent Republican leader: House Speaker Joe Straus.

Going into overtime on redistricting or other conservative red-meat issues could be especially difficult for the speaker, who managed his chamber with a coalition of Republicans and Democrats — the same Democrats who would have to be elbowed aside to get those conservative issues passed.

For instance, during the session, the House stymied the redistricting effort, saying it would be happy to look at anything that had already been approved by the Senate. That’s an insider’s way to kill a political bill; a longstanding tradition prevents either chamber from voting on the other chamber’s political map first. The House approves the Senate map only after the upper chamber backs it, and vice versa. Anything else would be a breach of protocol; Straus and everyone else in that conversation understands that.

But a special session changes things. The map question is limited — all the governor has asked is that lawmakers ratify maps drawn by federal judges. Real mapmaking isn't what he's after. A simple up-or-down vote on the maps could be fast; drawing new maps could raise the political stakes for everyone, especially in the House. 

It’s on the other issues that the pendulum could really swing. Republicans needed Democrats during the session to pass a state budget, a water plan and so on. Without those issues in play, the majority doesn’t have to trade a vote on one thing for support on another.

Simple majorities, if they can put them together, are all that would be needed to settle some of those partisan questions. Republicans can produce those simple majorities all by themselves, if they can settle their internal differences.

And if the governor, with his power over the agenda, decides to add those issues to their to-do list.

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