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Analysis: In special session, Texas Senate's the hare, House is the tortoise

This summer's special session is a little like this spring's regular session, only in miniature. The Senate has big plans and is in a hurry. The House? Not so much.

The three leaders of Texas appear jovial at a short meeting of the Cash Management Committee on July 18, 2017, as they face a potentially contentious 30-day special session of the 85th Legislature. 

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Does this seem familiar? The Texas Senate is ripping through an ambitious agenda, racing through the 20 issues on the governor’s special session agenda in an effort to finish within the 30 days allotted for that work.

The Texas House is more deliberate, spending its time on the single issue that must pass — sunset legislation that would continue, for two more years, the lives of five government agencies — and leaving the other 19 issues for later.

This full-speed-ahead vs. slow-and-steady tension was the hallmark of the regular legislative session earlier this year. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, presiding officer of the Senate, laid out an ambitious plan, giving the low bill numbers — Senate Bill 1, Senate Bill 2 and so on — to his legislative priorities and hurrying those off to the House for consideration and collaboration.

That strategy has its charms, especially to anyone with enough legislative experience to know that end-of-session deadlines are often fatal even to bills that have widespread support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Get the work done early, before the storm that always comes at the end.

It has a tactical disadvantage, however, because the chamber that hurries sends all of its darlings to the chamber that’s moving slowly. It’s like sending a stream of hostages to a kidnapper. If the Senate wants a lot of bills passed and the House does, too, there are opportunities for trade. If not — if the Senate wants things and the House doesn’t have a wish list — it puts the hurry-up Senate in the jaws of the we’ll-get-to-it-sometime House.

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions.

The governor can’t really change the flow of things. He can implore. He’s got the bully pulpit. But his only official role here is to start the session, name the subjects for consideration and then wait to see whether any bills make it back to him for signature or veto. Except for his power to pick the subject matter, it works a lot like the regular session.

Last week, Senate Republicans used every rule available to speed consideration of the sunset legislation, because Gov. Greg Abbott said it had to pass before he would open the agenda to other issues.

Once Abbott opened the gates, the Senate set 13 committee meetings for Friday, Saturday and Sunday — racing through the items on the special session agenda in order to get as many of them as possible in front of the full Senate before the end of the session’s second week.

The House, meanwhile, has limited its attention to the must-do sunset legislation, content to lumber through the red-meat items on Abbott’s agenda after that one is out of the way.

“This isn’t a race,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the San Antonio Express-News when asked about the different tempos.

That’s right, sort of. Hardly anyone outside of the Texas Capitol and the bubble that surrounds it really cares about the inch-by-inch progress of legislation, about which side acted first and whose amendments got on; they just care about what passes and what doesn’t, about who voted their way and who didn’t.

The difference in speed will give Patrick and the Senate — and the governor, if he wants to join in — an opportunity to pressure the House to act on what the Senate has sent over. They win on the noisemaking front.

It gives the House the power to edit the Senate’s work, to decide what ultimately gets to the governor and what doesn’t, to control the flow of the special session. It plays into one of the Capitol’s favorite clichés, too: “The process is designed to kill bills — not to pass them.”

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions. The first of the session’s four Fridays is already behind us. The House — the tortoise in this race — is just coming up to the starting line. The hare — the Senate — is already sprinting.

All by itself.

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State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Joe Straus Special sessions Texas Legislature