Wednesday, September 10, 2003

DALLAS — The band of dissenting Democratic senators who ran off to New Mexico rather than allow a vote on a controversial redistricting bill will arrive back in Texas today — their boycott over and apparently a losing effort.

As the Democrats announced Tuesday they would return, Republican Gov. Rick Perry called for a third special legislative session to begin Monday.

Republicans — assured now of enough votes to pass a bill that would heavily affect next year’s congressional races, probably a gain of five to seven seats for the Republicans — were generally low-key.

Democrats, who had spent almost six weeks in Albuquerque, N.M., avoiding a Senate quorum earlier, seemed generally dispirited, but vowed to fight further. Most of them said they would report back to the Senate chambers for the opening Monday.

Republicans are in control of both Texas houses and hold every statewide political office. In Congress, however, they hold only 15 of Texas’ 32 seats — and that is the rationale for the current redistricting push.

National Republicans, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and presidential adviser Karl Rove, have consulted with Texas Republican leaders over the past few months — encouraging Mr. Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to push for the quick remapping.

With the current U.S. House makeup of 229 Republicans and 205 Democrats (with one independent who most often sides with Democrats), the importance of such a bonanza for the Republicans in 2004 can readily be seen.

The third special session is likely to be more refined than the first two. Fifty-one House Democrats bolted to Oklahoma in May to block a redistricting bill from getting to that chamber’s agenda. Then a month and a half ago, 11 Democratic senators took off for New Mexico, stalling action in the Senate.

Several of the Democratic senators plan to attend a federal court hearing today in Laredo on a lawsuit seeking to force Mr. Dewhurst — chief officer of the Senate — to reinstate a Senate tradition requiring a two-thirds majority vote before any legislation can be considered.

Mr. Dewhurst didn’t allow it in the previous sessions, igniting the walkouts by the Democrats — who under the normal regulations could have successfully kept the redistricting from being brought to the floor.

Frustrated by the walkout, fellow senators levied fines of about $57,000 against each of those who went to Albuquerque. They also took away parking privileges and other perks for staffers of the missing senators.

Mr. Perry and Mr. Dewhurst have said that redistricting is not the only important legislation to consider. Among the other measures up for consideration: a school-funding issue, a reorganization of state government and a change in primary-election dates.

Mr. Perry says the repositioning of the March 2 primary is vitally important. The timing there is crucial.

Once a map is approved, the U.S. Justice Department has 60 days to review it to determine if it meets legal standards and does not violate minorities’ voting rights.

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