Texas Democrats Have Few Tools to Stop Republican Agenda

Despite limited options, the Democrats barely mentioned the wave of protests happening in Austin and around the country.


Texas Democrats huddle after Governor Greg Abbott's State of the State address.
Texas Democrats huddle after Governor Greg Abbott’s State of the State address.  Kolten Parker

For the Democratic members of the Texas House and Senate, watching Governor Greg Abbott’s State of the State address Tuesday was an exercise in frustration.

In a press conference immediately following Abbott’s speech, which at times felt like a locker room talk after a bad loss, several of the state’s woefully outnumbered Democratic lawmakers lamented the governor’s policy directives. The Dems also acknowledged that there is little they can do to stop many of them from becoming law.

“The reality is we’re in the minority,” said Senator José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat and chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “The only tools at our disposal are, in fact, joining together with our colleagues on the House side and on the Senate side and doing everything we can to stop this harmful legislation, like sanctuary cities, and that’s not the only one.”

The Senate’s 11 Democrats won’t be able to stop any legislation from going to a vote in their chamber without the help of the two-thirds rule, which Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick killed last session. Now it only takes 19 members to bring legislation up for debate; there are 20 Republicans in the Senate.

“Because we don’t have the numbers here, the only thing that we have on our side, in terms of a body, is the 140-day time limit,” said state Senator José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. Many bills die simply because the clock runs out at the end of the 140-day regular session.

But not even time is on the side of the Democrats this session. Republicans are already moving quickly to pass legislation declared an “emergency” by the governor and favored by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Senate Bill 4, a ban on so-called sanctuary cities, is scheduled for a committee hearing on Thursday. In a video posted to his Facebook page, Patrick said he “hopes to pass out the bill off the Senate floor next week.”

Democrats hope to stop the Republicans from adding further restrictions to women’s health care, pointing to one of the stranger parts of Abbott’s speech in which he called for the criminalization of the donation of fetal remains.

“The butchering of unborn babies for trade in the open market is barbaric,” Abbott said. “Senator [Charles[ Schwertner and Representative [Cindy] Burkett, I want legislation on my desk that criminalizes the sale or donation of baby body parts.”

Rodríguez also pointed to Brenham Republican state Senator Lois Kolhorst’s anti-transgender bathroom bill, which the governor didn’t touch in his address, as an example of “divisive social legislation” proposed by GOP lawmakers.

Until a reporter brought up the issue, the press conference seemed like it might pass without any of the Democratic lawmakers talking about the wave of protests across the country since Trump’s inauguration. In response, Menéndez urged citizens opposed to GOP policies to show up at the Capitol.

“We need people to show up at the committee hearings and we need those hearings to go on,” Menéndez said. “We need Texans to stand up and say ‘We may not have been part of the electoral process and maybe that’s why you don’t have the numbers, but we’re here now’.“