Texas Senate changes rules so Republicans can still bring bills to floor without Democratic support

The Texas Senate gallery is mostly empty due to social distancing at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Credit: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a two-thirds supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

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Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

Still, earlier Wednesday, Patrick expressed uncertainty about whether he’d be able to implement such a change. “I only have 18 Republicans. I need 16 votes,” he said at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual Policy Orientation, referring to the simple majority needed to pass the measures. “I never count them till it’s over, but I'm hoping they do that. ... I pray that we do.”

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but ... it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, one of the more senior members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, charged that the move perpetuates party-line voting.

“I’m talking about protecting minority rights and also making certain we have to talk to one another as it relates to critical legislation,” West said. “And we talk to each other concerning legislation, but that two-thirds rule made it real important that each member of this body consulted about legislation.”

Other furious Democrats accused Republicans of a power grab, warning them that lowering the threshold would make the Senate “less deliberative.”

“Why are we really changing the rules? Is it because the Democrats gained one more seat in this last election?” Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen later asked.

“Partisan majority is a big deal, yes sir,” Hughes responded.

Wednesday was not the first time Patrick has presided over decreasing the threshold. In his first session as lieutenant governor in 2015, the Senate lowered the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths of the chamber, giving his party complete control.

The gravity of the change was reflected in an unusual scene on the Senate floor: Nearly all 31 senators were in their seats, rapt, as the chamber debated.

This procedural change was a climax to the bitter debate between the parties over ultimate control of the upper chamber. Republicans, through their frequent use of the various roadblocks that Senate procedure affords them, have routinely steamrolled Democrats while bringing up a host of conservative priorities for consideration. Democrats, in turn, have accused Republicans of ignoring the voices of the minority party.

With rule change, said state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, “I fear that we are on a path that is taking us to Washington, D.C., and a toxic environment.”

By contrast, earlier Wednesday the chamber also adopted a host of rules regarding coronavirus protocols with no debate.

Among the proposals: Each senator is allowed one staffer on the floor while the Senate is in session; to attend a committee hearing or the Senate floor, a member must have a negative COVID-19 test that day; all Senate staff must be tested before accessing the chamber or committee hearings; and while on the floor, members of the Senate must wear masks except when alone at their desks.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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