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 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