With no quorum in the Texas House of Representatives, the Senate is trying to make the eventual lawmaking process faster should the Democrats return at the end.
The second special session of the legislature was called immediately after the first failed to pass any bills after more than 50 Texas Democrats fled the state to deny the House a quorum. The move was meant to block a massive voter rights and access restriction bill favored by Governor Greg Abbott and widely seen as the most draconian of such bills being debated all around the country. Abbott has vowed to keep calling special sessions until the bill passes.
It’s possible that Democrats will return for some of this session, and two have already done so. A criminal district court judge has already blocked the warrant for their arrest, adding further incentive to return.
However, should that happen, Democrats are still likely to be reduced to delaying tactics to thwart the voting restrictions bill as well as other Republican priorities. That’s where the new Senate rules come in.
The first is a rule known as tagging. Tagging allows members of the Senate to require 48 hours of written notice before a bill can be heard, ostensibly to be able to read it. However, with the special sessions limited to thirty days by Texas constitutional law, tagging could also be used to punt a bill until the clock runs out. Remaining Texas Democrats said that the rule change would deny Texans the ability to be heard in hearings thanks to no notice. The testimonies from Texans regarding the original bill proposed in the regular session included nearly 200 witnesses and lasted fifteen hours.
The second rule would allow the Senate to skip public hearings completely on subjects that the House had already had hearings on. Combined, these rule changes massively speed up the legislative process in the upper chamber, though at the cost of allowing Texans to voice their support or opposition.
Abbott has also proposed changes to the quorum rules in the House. The current rules call for a two-thirds majority in the House to come to order. Abbott has proposed that be changed to a simple majority. This would certainly benefit the governor and the ruling party. However, it cannot pass until enough Democrats return under the current rules to form a quorum.
All of these rule changes could prove critical if the Democrats return at the last minute, but even with them it is unlikely that Abbott could push through the eleven items on the agenda before the session ends. More special sessions are inevitable, particularly as the results of the U.S. Census come out next month and begin the fight over new congressional district lines.
Having lost their push for electoral dominance in the regular session, Republicans seem intent on increasing speed in the specials. Still, all the speed in the world will not matter if the House never comes to order to pass the Senate’s bills. At this point, it’s just an increasingly tense waiting game.