April 21, 2004
Let's all play nice now

How civilized. Everybody seems to have kissed and made up in the state Senate.

The Texas Senate sought to rediscover its clubby self Tuesday.

The start of a special session on school finance marked the first time the full Senate had convened since October, when a third special session on redistricting ended with passage of a Republican congressional plan, $57,000 worth of probationary fines hanging over the wallets of 11 Democratic senators and partisan ill will in the air.

But the Democrats who fled to Albuquerque, N.M., last year, shutting down the Senate and delaying action on the redistricting map, were present and accounted for on Tuesday, shaking hands and joking with their Republican colleagues.

Democrats delivered about half of the 19 effusive nominating speeches for Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, a Republican who was unanimously elected president pro tempore, or assistant presiding officer, an honor that makes him third in line of succession to the governor's office.

"You're not as mean-spirited as you seemed, maybe last summer," joked Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, addressing Wentworth across the Senate floor.


"You've got to be professional and put partisan and petty fights aside," said Whitmire, the Senate's "dean," or longest-serving member.

"We are really friends," he added, describing how traditional relationships among senators often resemble memberships in an exclusive club. The Senate includes only 31 members, and senators of both parties are accustomed to debating each other on the floor then sharing lunch in the lounge.

I'm sure all that's true. I just think that it'd be way more convincing (to me, anyway) if they quoted someone other than John Whitmire, who isn't exactly beloved among his Democratic compatriots right now. Look at this quote and tell me you don't see a few ripples underneath the surface:

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, said he still had visions of "orange parking barrels and orange cones in my dreams."

In other words, maybe we've forgiven, but we haven't exactly forgotten. I also wouldn't be at all surprised to hear similar under the breath sentiments muttered by some GOP Senators. And of course, this says nothing about the House, which I expect will be more partisan, not less.

True to his word, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's Republican presiding officer, took steps on Tuesday to restore a tradition requiring two-thirds of the Senate to approve debate on any legislation.

Dewhurst's decision to bypass that tradition during the redistricting fight prompted the walkout. Now, Democratic senators will have more clout over educational proposals even though they are outnumbered by Republicans 19-12 because some of their votes will be needed to bring a bill up for debate.

For months, Dewhurst has been predicting that senators will not let old differences over redistricting block their efforts to devise a new school funding plan.

Dewhurst said he will honor the two-thirds tradition as long as senators of both parties cooperate in seeking consensus on educational changes. If they don't, he warned in an interview last week, he will bypass the procedure "faster than a New York second."

The proper expression is "a New York minute", but that's not important right now. In practical terms, this means that there will be a blocker bill parked atop of the Senate calendar. The tradition, for those who tuned in late, is that the first bill introduced in the Senate is a meaningless bill whose sole purpose is to take a place ahead of all other bills the Senate considers. Senate rules say that any bill must get a two-thirds majority vote to be brought to the floor ahead of some other bill. There was no blocker bill in the last special session on redistricting, so with nothing ahead of it on the agenda, a simple majority vote was all that was needed to bring it to the floor for debate and a final vote.

How can Dewhurst "bypass" this rule - and note that while having a blocker bill is a tradition, once it's there the two-thirds requirement is a rule - if he feels like it? There may be other means, but I'd think the simplest way would be to bring the blocker bill itself up for a vote. Once it's cleared off the calendar, the next bill in line can be debated and voted on with simple majority approval. By the way, I take this as another sign that all is not quite as happy and carefree as the article indicates.

UPDATE: A bit more on the installation of Sen. Wentworth as President Pro Tem of the Senate. This one is more convincing to me in its depiction of restored collegiality, but I remain skeptical.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 21, 2004 to Killer D's | TrackBack