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“A Cauldron Is Brewing in the Senate”

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The words in the headline were spoken to me by a Republican senator about recent developments involving the Senate budget, followed by, “People’s frustrations are at a boiling point.” Tensions are high in three areas: inside the Republican caucus, between many senators and Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, and between Rs and Ds. The breaches are serious enough to raise the possibility that the Senate’s budget bill, which was supposed to come out of committee at the end of last week, may have trouble reaching the 21-vote threshold.

Go back to last Friday, March 30. The Finance committee was supposed to meet at 11 a.m. to consider the last few riders and send the bill to be printed. No substantive changes were contemplated. A few minutes before eleven, senators Nelson and Shapiro approached a GOP colleague to say that they could not support the bill. The conservative senators on finance–Nelson and Shapiro, along with Duell, Fraser, Janek, and Williams–then huddled to express their concerns, rather than attend the committee meeting. Their angst was directed at the lieutenant governor, over two issues in particular:

* The makeup of the conference committee. The belief of the conservatives is that the conference committee will consist of Ogden, Duncan, Averitt, Whitmire, and Zaffirini. Nelson and Shapiro, who headed the two most important working groups, health care and education respectively, are not expected to be on conference. The conservatives believe that the members of the committee were chosen because they will be compliant with Dewhurst’s wishes, rather than defend the work of the senators who crafted the lion’s share of the budget.

* Dewhurst’s obsession with his race for governor in 2010. “He believes he can get everybody in South Texas to vote for him,” one of the conservatives told me, “and he can’t get enough pork to them.” Another comment was the Dewhurst “kowtows to [Judith] Zaffirini.” He backed her desire to reduce the waiting lists for state health services over the Republicans’ desire to spend the money for the services–for example, a new 500 bed mental health hospital that got taken out of the budget. The conservatives worry that Dewhurst will spend so much in pursuit of his political goals that the cushion that was set aside for further property tax reductions in 2009 will be raided. In particular, the conservatives are upset about a homeland security rider that provides money to sheriffs in South Texas who want to hire more deputies. The rider has $10 million as a contingency if federal funds for local anti-drug efforts are exhausted. Dewhurst said 10 million wasn’t enough and asked for $20 million. (Ogden said no.) There is a huge amount of skepticism about this money. Some border senators are as skeptical about this proposal as Republicans are. They say that the sheriffs are “building an empire” with state funds, buying Hummers and other toys. “We had it all worked out,” one of the Republicans told me, “and then Dewhurst got involved,” and the deal came undone.

The bottom line, I was told, is that as many as five conservatives on the Finance committee are not sure that they will support the bill.

The discontent with Dewhurst goes beyond the budget bill. Senators are irked that Dewhurst held onto an estimated one thousand bills before finally referring them to committee–something that normally has been regarded as routine. This tactic meant that many senators’ bills are already doomed to die in the legislative logjam due to the lost time. “Nobody trusts him any more,” one senator told me. In one recent incident, Dewhurst knocked a Fraser bill off the local and consent calendar, or caused it to be knocked off. The story is that Dewhurst was irked that Fraser wouldn’t take a TXU amendment to the major bill dealing with the buyout and got even by attempting to kill Fraser’s bill (SB 484, which dealt with the powers and duties of a committee on electricity restructuring). Fraser rounded up the unanimous support of his colleagues and passed the bill in regular floor debate. A more serious matter is the argument over Jessica’s Law, which Dewhurst has been pushing as part of his campaign for governor. Dewhurst wants the bill passed as is, even though prosecutors and victims’ groups have expressed deep concerns that the 25-year minimum sentence will make sexual abuse cases more difficult to prosecute. Around 4 out of 5 offenses are committed by relative of the victim; the fear is that family members will not report the cases if it means that a kinsman is going to be incarerated for 25 years. Today, most cases are resolved through plea bargains, but the long mandatory sentences means that there will be no plea bargains. Senators in both parties want to see changes made in the bill, but Dewhurst is resistant–for reasons that senators see as related to politics rather than policy.

The third area of discontent in the Senate involves the more traditional battle lines of Rs versus Ds. Some Democratic senators on Finance say that Republicans won’t negotiate with them. As my colleague Patricia Kilday Hart has written, the Ds were particularly upset over Duncan’s rider in the Frew case, which he brought up without advance warning to Democrats. It called for any monetary judgment against the state for additional Medicaid services to be paid for out of current Medicaid and CHIP spending. Duncan has since modified the rider, but the experience left a sour taste in the mouths of some Democrats.

The question is how far the conservatives are willing to press the issue. Senators Patrick, Jackson, and Ellis are already known to be against the Senate budget bill. The GOP conservatives have major concerns. That’s eight or nine -potential negative votes already, and the Democrats are mad over the Frew rider. I’m not saying that there are eleven votes not to suspend on the appropriations bill, but I will say that the ingredients for a meltdown are present.

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