End-of-session madness hits Capitol

Just days before the Texas Legislature is set to adjourn, activity at the Capitol has reached fever pitch.

Last-minute scrambling to pass bills has brought to the pink dome frayed nerves, flared tempers, and failing friendships. Long days careen into tense midnights, with deadlines coming fast and furious, important legislation squeaking by just under the wire and hundreds of bills dying on the battlefield of what was once a fairly amicable session.

At the same time, hundreds of bills are passing over a matter of days, and lawmakers and staff work overtime trying to understand what new laws they are creating.

It is a frenetic atmosphere even for the most seasoned legislators - and new members in particular view it as a kind of baptismal fire.

"It's exciting, but it's also scary," said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, an emergency room doctor who is in her first term. "I've got an ER personality, and I like things to move quickly - but I also like to move cautiously."

A bill that would have required drug testing for welfare recipients died on the House floor on Tuesday night, while another bill that would have prohibited Texas from enforcing federal gun laws died in the Senate.

"We're kind of in a part of the session where a lot of good legislation dies. I lost a lot of good legislation the other night," said Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston. "It is very frustrating. I'm afraid some of them were trying to do slogans for mailers for their next election rather than trying to do what was right for the people of Texas."

Adding to the tensions are the fact that the budget still has not been passed, with House and Senate budget writers accusing each other of dishonesty, added to the fact that lawmakers are being told to prepare for a special session on redistricting.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst rattled Democrats' chains when he suggested late Wednesday that the ultra-conservative agenda that did not pass this session would be added to the agenda during the special - including fetal pain and campus-carry legislation.

Fighting between the House and Senate got personal on Wednesday, when Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, began picking off local bills by a Republican senator she was arguing with over a bill on housing.

Across the Capitol Rotunda the same morning, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, issued an "Amber Alert" for a bill important to the budget process that the House had been promising to pass - but had yet to do so that afternoon.

Inside the Senate chamber late Wednesday, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, asked a Democratic senator to clarify an amendment she was trying to add to an education bill.

"Let's slow down, and explain to me what this amendment does," Patrick said, waving his hand and speaking slowly, as if he were addressing a child.

Another senator testily responded: "We've been talking about it for half an hour."

On Tuesday, the House reached its midnight deadline to pass Senate bills amid of frenzy of procedural maneuvers and high drama.

House Democrats, who are in the minority, used every 11th-hour trick in the book to block legislation by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, requiring welfare recipients to take drug tests.

The bill that had been passed by the Republican majority in the Senate and was sure to pass a vote in the House, where Republicans also have a majority.

But Democrats, certain they could not kill the bill simply by convincing Republicans to vote against it, began gumming up the works with long question-and-answer sessions, piles of amendments and time-consuming procedural objections called "points of order," in which a lawmaker alleges that a bill has broken a rule, causing the House Parliamentarian to consider the objection and then make a ruling.

With their low numbers, Democrats have few ways to stop bills their districts object to - but deadline days always work in their favor. The answer is to simply run out the clock - and frustrated Republicans are powerless to stop it.

The ability to use the rules and parliamentary procedures is how the Legislature ensures that members of the minority party can still have a voice and represent their districts. They are tactics the Republicans used for 130 years before they won the majority in 2003 - but it is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for some of the new members.

Many of them wondered why the Democrats did not just use their votes, persuasion tactics, and debating skills to pass or kill legislation.

Strama answered that when Democrats are outnumbered two-to-one, "just use your vote" is not exactly a viable option.

"The rules are what they are, and both sides use them to optimize their political leverage and advantage, and it works against the minority party more often than it works for them. For example, the rule that a bill has to have a majority of votes to pass," Strama said, breaking into laughter. "That's a rule that helps them more than it helps us. It kills us. If it weren't for that rule, I would have passed every bill this session."

At one point, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, attempted to physically block Democrats from going to the microphone on the House floor and talking the welfare bill to death, an old tactic that only works as long as the sergeant-at-arms does not notice.

"I said, 'That's it, I just don't want to listen to them complaining anymore. I just don't,'" Capriglione said. "So I decided to go back to the podium and do my own version of a silent protest there."



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