It’s gametime in the Texas Senate, with serious results

by Peggy Fikac, San Antonio Express-News—

AUSTIN – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was sanguine as he once again left Senate Democrats powerless, comparing their scuffle to two football teams that skirmish on the field then go out for beer and barbecue afterward.

Maybe, if it’s the Dallas Cowboys playing the Scarborough Spartans and being allowed to suspend the rules whenever they please to boot.

No offense to the Spartans, the Houston team that held the second longest high school losing streak in Texas history until 2015, when they finally won a game after 59 losses.

But last week’s beat-down of Senate Democrats by the Republican majority is another example of the new legislative order since Patrick was elected lieutenant governor and drove a procedural change that stripped power from the minority.

Pre-Patrick, the Senate required a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation for debate. That meant those in the minority on an issue had some leverage, and those in the majority had reason to find compromise.

Under Patrick that was changed to a three-fifths vote, allowing the 20 Republicans in the 31-member chamber over which the lieutenant governor presides to bring up bills without any Democratic backing. 

Where it was once noteworthy when Republicans rolled over Democrats, now it’s expected when the stakes are high. 

Last week was another milestone when the majority waived the “tag” rule, which as written allows senators to delay consideration of a bill for 48 hours. Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, sought such a pause before the Senate could take up a noncontroversial, must-pass sunset bill to keep open several agencies, including the Texas Medical Board.

Rodriguez’s action broadly was an effort to slow down Patrick’s speeding legislative train. The lieutenant governor wants to pass legislation on all 20 items on the special-session agenda by this week — including a contentious measure to restrict the public restrooms that transgender people can use. 

Republicans said delaying the sunset bill, which the Senate had to pass before Gov. Greg Abbott would formally place the other items before them, would waste time and taxpayers’ money.

As Rodriguez got rolled, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she didn’t recall seeing the tag rule suspended in her 30 years in the Senate. Patrick said it had happened before her service. He later dismissed the idea that there would be any lingering acrimony.

“Oh no. We had some good fun out there,” said Patrick, citing light moments in exchanges with Rodriguez and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, during the tag-rule discussion. “I understand and respect the rules, being a former senator. You have to give every senator the right to express themselves and to talk and to present their point of view on a bill, and that’s what we’ve always done, and I think that’s why we really function so well as a Senate.”

Patrick, who often highlights bipartisan votes on key issues, said the disagreements aren’t personal. 

“It’s like when you see two football coaches who are lifelong friends,” he said. “The object is … for their team to win, but at the end of the game, they all go out and have barbecue and a beer and that’s the way we try to operate the Senate. I think it has served all the members well, and it sure has made my job easy, because I have 31 respectful people who are gentlemen and ladies all the time.”

It’s not so easy for Democrats.

Democratic Sens. Sylvia Garcia of Houston and José Rodríguez of El Paso called it a sad day for the Senate. 

“What it means is that any rule can be suspended,” Rodriguez said. He wondered whether the tradition of filibusters, in which senators can try to kill a bill by talking until the clock runs out in a session, also is doomed. 

“The lesson here, I think, is that … the leadership is willing to suspend all rules, regardless, at any given time, so that the controlling majority of this Legislature can get things done even if it means shortchanging senators on more time to consider bills that are important, significant, and even if it means cutting out the public’s right to participate,” Rodriguez said. 

Garcia said, “We’re acting more like Washington every single day. I see more and more of our traditions and rules go down the drain.” 

There are still some actions that require a four-fifths vote, such as giving final approval to a bill the first day it comes to the Senate floor. But Democrats are mainly out of luck until the day they can pull off a Spartans-like victory at the ballot box, end their losing streak in statewide elections and gain enough numbers to control a legislative chamber.

Democratic strategist Harold Cook said Senate rules “have always been pretty squishy” but that historically the bottom line was “the legislative form of the golden rule. If I do this to another senator, how much am I going to enjoy it when someone does it to me?” 

There was an impetus to compromise, Cook said, but added, “Those days are just gone in the Senate.”

“Senators used to be fond of saying that the Texas Senate is the finest deliberative body in the world,” Cook said. “Lately, it’s not even the finest deliberative body in the Capitol building.”

pfikac@express-news.net

Twitter: @pfikac

Austin Bureau Chief, San Antonio Express-News

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