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What unusual maneuver happened in the Texas House to halt amendments on “sanctuary” bill?

The marathon debate on the “sanctuary” bill in the Texas House had impassioned speeches, tears and what some House Democrats called a surprising move by a House Republican to cut short debate on adding amendments to the bill.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, left, talks with Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, on the House floor on April 27, 2017.

The Texas House's early Thursday morning vote on Senate Bill 4 — the "sanctuary" jurisdictions bill — came after a marathon 16-hour debate that saw tears shed, impassioned speeches made — and one parliamentary trick that ended debate and took some in the House by surprise. 

SB 4 would penalize local law enforcement for not complying with federal immigration agents' requests to hold undocumented immigrants subject to deportation. House Democrats labeled the proposal "intentionally" racist, while Republicans said the bill only seeks to remove undocumented criminals from the country.

Late on Wednesday night, the House had debated about 80 of the roughly 180 amendments proposed for the bill. That's when state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, made a move to “suspend all necessary rules” to count the roughly 100 remaining amendments as having been considered and defeated, rather than debating and voting on them individually.

Under House rules, Bonnen was required to give colleagues an hour’s notice before his motion could be carried out — a move that the lower chamber could have bypassed had there been unanimous consent among lawmakers.

When Bonnen first proposed the motion around midnight, some Democrats, including state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, objected.

“It was unwise to cut off debate when you had a ton of amendments a lot of us cared about,” Walle told The Texas Tribune on the House floor Friday. “It was such an important bill to cut off debate — it’s unprecedented. You have to allow members to represent our districts, and the way we represent our constituents is to file amendments.”

Bonnen then issued a notice that he intended to make the same motion an hour later, which would require the consent of two-thirds of House members to pass. The second time he proposed the motion, around 2:30 a.m., it passed in a 114-29 vote, with a about a third of House Democrats voting to end debate on the remaining amendments. 

At that point, the rest of the amendments — around 85 — were cleared as “considered” or “defeated,” effectively bringing debate to an end. 

“When we come to a point we’re at now, the best thing for each and every one of us is to finish and go home, get rest and come back the next day with the work we did behind us,” Bonnen said late Wednesday.

Bonnen proposed that the record vote on amendment 67 — a measure by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have prosecuted people for intentionally filing a false complaint — was recorded as the vote on each amendment on House Speaker Joe Straus’ desk at that time. If members voted against amendment 67, which failed, they were recorded as voting against each of the remaining amendments.

Bonnen later told the Tribune he urged the final vote because the vote on every amendment was the same.

“We had more than 16 hours of debate and I think the members at the time were looking for a respectful way to finish the bill. I think the most respectful way was to give each amendment a record vote,” Bonnen said Friday. 

However, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston who is a longtime member of the House, spoke in opposition to Bonnen’s move Thursday. In an interview, he likened his colleague’s maneuver to skirting the rules.

“The only way we operate around here is if we all have rules we can operate on," Coleman told The Texas Tribune Thursday. "We don’t go around suspending the rules — that’s the Senate, and we [the House] are very different.”

Addressing “sanctuary” jurisdictions was declared an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott in the early days of the 85th legislative session. SB 4 passed the Senate in February and now bill now heads back to the upper chamber, where senators can either accept the House’s version of the bill or call for a conference committee where lawmakers from both chambers can work out differences on the legislation.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • “Sanctuary” bill heads back to Senate after marathon House debate.

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