January 20, 2007
Eleven minus one

This was mentioned in an earlier Chron story, but the news about Sen. Mario Gallegos's need for a liver transplant means that the partisan dynamic in the Senate has changed.

The 11 Senate Democrats now number 10, and find themselves one vote short of blocking legislation under the so-called two-thirds rule. The longstanding and often controversial rule has been in place at least since the 1950s and allows 11 of the 31 senators to block debate on any bill. The rule was designed to boost consensus on legislation by requiring that two-thirds of the senators want to take action -- usually an indication that a bill could pass.

But in recent years, the rule has come under increasing criticism for thwarting majority rule -- most recently a week ago when freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, moved to abolish the rule when the Senate adopted its operating policies for the legislative session. He failed 30-1.

Gallegos, in a prepared statement Jan. 12, said that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has assured him he would not take action on any major legislation until Gallegos returns. But several senators said this week that is contingent upon how soon Gallegos comes back.

"Unless my surgery occurs later rather than earlier, the speed with which major legislation emerges from committee makes me hopeful that I will not have to make such a request on a specific piece of legislation," said Gallegos, who announced last March he was undergoing treatment for alcoholism.

As the Senate's presiding officer, Dewhurst can delay action on any bill -- at least for a time.

But if Gallegos has not returned by March, when major bills are expected to be ready for floor debate, the 20 Republicans could vote to go ahead and consider bills -- if they vote together.

"We'll just have to wait and see how soon Mario comes back," said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who is the longest-serving senator and a close Gallegos friend. "It could change things, yes."

Other senators suggested it might not. The reason: On any given issue, Democrats might be able to find one Republican who would vote to block debate, because he or she would join the Democrats in opposing a bill.


Patrick echoed the wait-and-see sentiments of Whitmire and others on what Gallegos' absence could mean.

"We'll have to see how his health develops," he said. "If he's not back at some point, we won't need 20 votes."

And what will Gallegos' absence mean to Patrick's announced campaign to continue trying to do away with the two-thirds rule?

"We'll wait and see on that, too," he said.

I'm not sure what Patrick's "we won't need 20 votes" comment means - I think he either misspoke or was misquoted, because with Gallegos present, the GOP needs 21 votes to move legislation to the floor for a vote.

I have a bad feeling about this. I'm willing to extend some benefit of the doubt to David Dewhurst, because other than the redistricting saga, he has generally not pushed partisan interests ahead of other things. The problem is that he's now sharing the Senate with someone who like him wants to be Governor some day, and would (I believe) have no qualms about making any concessions to Gallegos and the Dems regarding the 2/3 rule a major issue in a primary fight. By that same token, I'm not sure about the Dems' ability to find that one Republican Senator when they need one on a key vote. One some things, maybe, and if there's more than one who's willing to break from the pack that too would work. I just don't want to be in the position of having to count on this for defense against something really awful, like the abortion trigger bill.

The question is what can be done about this. You can get whatever promises you want from Dewhurst and the Republican caucus, but I'd consider them as binding as a Speaker pledge card, for the simple reason that the Dems just don't have any leverage here. As I see it, either we hope that Gallegos will be able to travel to Austin at least on occasion, or he needs to consider resigning so that an emergency special election can be held (I do believe Governor Perry would be accomodating on this). Even then, given the high likelihood of a runoff, that seat would be empty until at least late March, and it would likely also mean an empty seat in the State House, which probably wouldn't be filled till at least May 12.

I hate to be so crass about this, but I guarantee that such crass calculations can and will be made by all interested parties, so it's best to think about them now. Vince has more faith in Dewhurst et al. I hope he's right. Maybe I'm overestimating the effect that Dan Patrick will have on Dewhurst. He's kind of like a hotshot bonus baby who's torn up the winter leagues but hasn't faced a major league curveball yet. He could turn out to be Dave Winfield, or he could turn out to be David Clyde. Perhaps by the time legislation is being voted on, Dewhurst will know that he has nothing to fear from Danno. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I just hate having to depend on maybe, that's all I'm saying.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 20, 2007 to That's our Lege | TrackBack

What is 2/3 of 30?

10 Democrats out of 30 can block a bill just as 11 out of 31 can.

This is no different than during the 2001 session when there were only 30 official members, as Ratliff did not (often) vote.

Posted by: buggy ding dong on January 21, 2007 1:32 AM

On issues that are purely partisan, this definitely busts the 2/3 rule, but that's a minority of issues, by far. It's not like redistricting is going to come up. Rs are split themselves on many topics - there aren't 20 anti-abortion votes, and on immigration Bob Perry, Leininger, et. al are lining up on the side of their immigrant workers. So even getting 20 votes instead of 21 is a hurdle that inevitably requires compromise. It remains to be seen if Patrick is capable or willing to make such compromises, or if he'd prefer to use his seat as a bully pulpit. Right now he's talking as though he wants a seat at the table.

Besides navigating the Senate's old boys club for floor votes, on every individual issue you have to look closely at the makeup of the relevant committee and who's chairing it, and at the counterpart in the House. Texas' legislative process is basically designed to kill bills and neuter the ones that make it through. (Thankfully) 80% of bills die. I agree the loss of Gallegos for the session will allow some legislation to get to the floor that might not have made it, but that's a long way from Dan Patrick getting to remake the world in his own image!

BTW, I couldn't agree more on the presidential race about sitting back to let it unfold. Myself, I tend to think Hillary's earned it and wouldn't be unhappy to see her as the nominee above the rest of the present crowd, and I wonder if Obama isn't too green to actually handle the job if elected. But those are hunches and we've got more than a year to enjoy the spectacle before we even know if our vote will matter in Texas! Best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast on January 21, 2007 8:34 AM

Buggy - It takes a 2/3 majority to move a bill to the floor. 20 out of 31 is not 2/3, which is why the full Democratic bloc can stop a bill on its own. But 20 out of 30 is 2/3, which is why Gallegos' absence matters. It's that the Dems need more than one third of the members, not that the Rs need more than 2/3.

Scott, I hope you're right as well. I go back and forth on Danno. I just don't know how his GOP colleagues will react to the prospect of being a target of one of his radio shows.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on January 21, 2007 9:38 AM