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Not everything in politics is partisan: President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Texas Lieutenant Dan Patrick, a Republican, sing together.
Each of them, frustrated by the super-majority’s demands to pass the preferred legislation in their respective chambers, took the view that a simple majority should prevail in important public policy votes.
Biden said this week that the US Senate, where he once served, should change its rules so that a simple majority of 51 members is required to pass voting rights legislation it supports. Under current rules, 60 out of 100 senators are needed, making it easier for Republicans and their numerical minority to block Democrats and their majority.
It is not at all certain that Biden’s party would win even if the rules change. But it is certain that without it, the electoral law is doomed.
Patrick is not on the president’s side when it comes to voting law. But he still feels the same way with the majority, a feeling he has made clear several times since he took office 15 years ago. As a lite guv, and previously as a state senator from Houston, Patrick criticized the rules and traditions that require the consent of an absolute majority of senators before legislation can be discussed.
For years it was known as the two-thirds rule. Before the law could be discussed in most cases, it required the nodding of 21 of the state’s 31 senators, leaving the legislation with a narrower majority aside. This did not seem fair to Patrick, who had a Republican majority in the Senate but often enforced legislation that did not have enough support. Unless the Republicans had 21 members – and all of them were in favor of a specific bill – they didn’t have the political juice to debate, let alone do anything about it.
Patrick complained from the beginning, starting in the first year in 2007: “We should have a simple majority. What happened to the majority government? And what about Jefferson and Madison and Monroe? It was fine for them. “
The Senate had 21 Republicans at the time, but a newcomer from Houston was buried. The Senate voted 30: 1 to keep the rule in place, and used it to thwart legislation on voter ID cards, abortions, school vouchers and weapons, to name a few.
When Patrick became lieutenant governor, the Senate had 20 Republican members and forced them to change the rule to require 19 senators – three-fifths – instead of 21. Last year, the Senate had 18 Republicans; they changed the rule to five-ninths, which means that the law must now be submitted to the assessment of 17 senators.
And over the years, the Senate (along with the House of Representatives) has passed legislation that has been stuck on old rules that require a voting card, limits abortions in the state, and makes it legal for most adults in Texas to carry guns without a license or training.
When it comes to Senate proceedings, Patrick is a man by Biden’s heart.
And Biden encountered the same kind of obstacle that Patrick faced 15 years ago: the Senate doesn’t seem to want to change its rules. Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema spoke against the president’s wish to change Senate rules on Thursday, although she said she supported the voting law she offered.
That’s the way it is when the legislative majority is small and the battles depend on how the rules work. Legislators play the rules in their favor. And when they are successful – and playing the rules this way is one thing that federal and state lawmakers are very good at – their opponents often have no choice but to resort to the tactics chosen by Patrick and Biden.
This is not party politics. It is a parliamentary policy played by people from all sides: if you cannot win under the current rules, you can give up or you can change the rules.