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Government/Politics

As Expected, Senate Republicans Change The Rules, Democrats Left Powerless

AUSTIN — Republicans strengthened their grip on the Texas Senate on Wednesday, shrugging off nearly 70 years of tradition with a rules change that knocks out the Democrats' ability to block legislation on party-line votes.

The GOP holds a 20-11 majority in the upper chamber, which under the old "two-thirds" rule would have left them one vote short of being able to bring up bills for debate without at least one Democrat. The tradition ensured that, even though it could be outvoted on every issue, the minority party could effectively block the most controversial bills from the floor.

By reducing the number required to 19, the GOP seized a controlling majority over just about every major Senate vote to come in the session with a small cushion to spare. And though a small numerical change, it could have a huge impact as it may leave Democrats powerless to block bills or force compromise on issues such as school choice, gun rights, immigration and state spending.

The rule change was near the top of new Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's wish list. The former state senator and tea party favorite first sought to change the rule in 2007 when he was voted down 30-1 on his first day in the Legislature.

Less than a decade later, Patrick is the new presiding officer over the chamber and delivered on a promise to consolidate GOP voting power after the party's sweeping success in the November elections.

"It will help us deliver a conservative agenda a majority of Texas voters elected us to pass," Patrick said after the vote.

Republicans needed only a majority vote to make the much-watched change. The 20-10 vote broke mostly along party lines, with Sen. Eddie Lucio Brownsville as the only Democrat to join Republicans in support. One Republican, Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, did not vote.

In other news, new Gov. Greg Abbott has submitted his first three appointments to the Senate for approval. Abbott asked the chamber to approve Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos as secretary of state, David Mattax as commissioner of the Department of Insurance, and Jerry Strickland as head of the Office of State and Federal Relations. Abbott announced all three appointments while still governor-elect, making his requests a formality.

Cascos is a Hispanic Republican who Abbott made a point of tapping him as his first nominee. Mattax was a deputy attorney general who took the lead defending Republican-drawn Texas voting maps in federal court. Abbott's predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry, already appointed him insurance commissioner for a term ending Feb. 1. Strickland is a former Abbott spokesman.