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Texas GOP Gets a Hand From D.C. Democrats

Some Texas Republicans would like to change a rule that allows Democrats to block bills favored by the majority of the state Senate. They have a new ally, at least on the idea: Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, l, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appeal for order as the Senate chamber erupted into chaos just before midnight June 25, 2013.

The conservatives who have been trying to get rid of the Texas Senate’s venerated two-thirds rule — here’s looking at you, Dan Patrick — may have received their best argument yet from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada.

He is the majority leader in that body and the trigger man behind the death of a procedure that required a supermajority to approve a presidential nominee.

The Texas Senate operates on a supermajority, too. Under ordinary circumstances, it takes approval from two-thirds of the 31 senators to bring a bill to the floor for debate.

On partisan matters, that prevents the Republicans from bringing up legislation unless two of the Senate’s 12 Democrats defy their party.

Patrick, among others, would like to kill or change things. What’s the point of electing a majority if the losers can control the agenda?

The real question is whether it’s a good idea to let everything fly with a simple majority or to require bigger numbers before making new laws.

Each side has some great arguments. Texas Republicans are in charge now, and got there, in part, by drawing new congressional and legislative lines that took away a built-in advantage for Texas Democrats. They accomplished that initially after a Republican senator used the rule to block the Democrats, who were trying to keep their advantage.

It has been a weird year to watch the Republicans and the Democrats in the Washington and Austin bubbles.

In Austin, the Democrats have whined about Republican efforts to run over them, and they have used the tools of the minority — the two-thirds rule, filibusters, anything they could get their hands on — to slow things down.

Sometimes it works, as when Democrats blocked an education bill in May for fear it would legalize public vouchers for private schools. Sometimes it works temporarily, as when Wendy Davis filibustered to kill a bill on a legislative deadline, only to watch the Republicans reset the clock, by booting up another special session, to get what they wanted a few days later.

Scratch this, and you’ll find people arguing both sides. After one or two sessions in the Texas Senate, each officeholder has been either the stomper or the stompee — in the minority on something and the majority on something else. Washington seems to always be in a partisan fight. In Austin, the majority-minority fights shift constantly. Redistricting debates are partisan. Debates over budgets for education break on rural and suburban lines, or on lines between big and little property tax bases. Water wars are all about geography.

So the federal scrap over what got tagged as the “nuclear option” was all about partisans. The state ruckus is more nuanced, and even the strong proponents of change are inclined to move slowly. Drop it to a smaller supermajority like 60 percent instead of killing it, they suggest.

The initial resistance is partisan. After all, Patrick, a Houston Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, is one of the most conservative senators, and Democrats are immediately suspect of anything he supports. A lower supermajority like 60 percent would put Republicans in control, given the current configuration. It would take 19 people to call up a bill. Today, there are 19 Republicans. With Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, running for governor, Republican chances of taking her district have improved. With the two-thirds rule in place, Republicans would still need a defector on partisan issues, even with one of their own representing the 10th Senate District.

Democratic senators think they would get squashed if the two-thirds rule disappeared. Republicans, during the 1990s, would have had the same reaction. The traditions in the Senate are strong, and that has kept the rule in place for all these years. Earlier this year, in fact, senators voted unanimously to keep the rule.

But others in the race for lieutenant governor have endorsed the lower number. That makes it an item for discussion when the Texas Senate convenes after next year’s elections. Those Republicans want to exercise the full power of the majority without a pesky minority throwing obstacles in their way. Who wouldn’t?

Just ask Reid and the Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

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