Bipartisanship: Return possible
Republicans crowed about carrying every statewide race in Texas. Democrats puffed their chests over gains in the Texas Legislature. But at the same time, significant people on both sides of the aisle talked up an ancient concept: bipartisanship.
Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat, told an Austin audience the message of the election is that "People actually want to see their government work, and work well."
Watson was one of five legislators of both parties in a panel discussion Thursday, Nov. 6, who said undiluted partisanship won't work. The panel was sponsored by the Center for Politics and Governance of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, one of several announced candidates to replace Republican Tom Craddick as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, said the almost-even party lineup in the House requires bipartisan consensus.
After the elections, Republicans' edge over the Democrats in the House had narrowed from 79-71 to 76-74. One Republican victory and one Democratic victory are under review.
That equilibrium "forces people to be respectful of each and every member," Turner said.
Jerry Madden, R-Plano, said "statesmanship is going to be very important. . . . There's great talent on both sides (of the aisle)."
The House rules usually give the speaker the right to appoint committees and their chairmen to put himself and four House members he picks on the House-Senate Legislative Budget Board, and to have a large hand in control of the House calendar. Lots of power.
But Craddick saw a Republican-led revolt over his heavy-handedness two years ago that came close to removing him from the speaker's chair.
Another speaker candidate - Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston - said Craddick had become speaker in 2003 after Republicans had captured 88 House seats following Republican-driven redistricting. Craddick could get well over the magic 76 votes from just one side of the aisle, Hochberg said.
"No speaker today will be able to do that," Hochberg predicted. The most effective speaker's team would be made up of roughly equal numbers from both parties, with committee chairmanships spread between the parties, Hochberg said. If a speaker is elected by 74 Democrats and two Republicans, or vice versa, "I think it's going to be very difficult for that speaker to be effective."
In a Nov. 5 press conference the morning after the election, Texas House Democratic Caucus leader Jim Dunnam of Waco said Texas needs a legislature "where bills are based on the best ideas," rather than partisanship or lobby interests. "We've got to get to the people's business," Dunnam said.
Later Wednesday, in announcing his candidacy for House speaker, Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Waco, said Craddick's heavy-handed partisanship had to go.
"The last time this House met, quite frankly, it was an embarrassment," Merritt said. "What was best for Texas took a back seat to what was best for one member . . . Speaker Tom Craddick."
Merritt promised to follow the lead of former Democratic Speaker Pete Laney, who avoided partisanship and allowed House members to vote their districts.
At the panel discussion, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, was asked what difference it will make with 12 Democrats, and possibly 13, of the Senate's 31 members instead of 11 - the one-third needed to block a two-thirds vote to bring up a bill in the Senate.
Shapiro said she and Democrat Watson often voted together. But the two-thirds rule reinforces that. It means "you have to cross the aisle to have consensus," Shapiro said.
Watson said another Democratic senator or two above the minimum one-third necessary to block a bill "probably increases bipartisanship," by making it so the Republican majority can no longer reach two-thirds by peeling off just one Democratic senator.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the forum's luncheon speaker, said she hoped for a change from the hostile environment of the past several years in Congress.
"We need to just throw away the partisanship," said Hutchison, who's hinting strongly at a race for governor in 2010. Republican losses in the Senate may strengthen the Democrats, but the fact that the Republicans still have more than the 41 votes necessary to block Democrats from ending a filibuster should encourage cooperation.
Republicans "hope to work in a bipartisan way," Hutchison said. "And that's a two-way street."
Now we'll get to see, both in Washington and Austin, if bipartisanship is more than a dream and a vague memory.