- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Republicans strengthened their grip on the Texas Senate on Wednesday, shrugging off nearly 70 years of tradition with a rules change that knocks out the Democrats’ ability to block legislation on party-line votes.

Republicans hold a 20-11 majority in the upper chamber, which under the old “two-thirds” rule would have left them one vote short of being able to bring up bills for debate without at least one Democrat. The tradition ensured that, even though it could be outvoted on every issue, the minority party could effectively block the most controversial bills from the floor.

By reducing the number required to 19, the GOP seized a controlling majority over just about every major Senate vote to come in the session with a small cushion to spare. And though a small numerical change, it could have a huge impact as it may leave Democrats powerless to block bills or force compromise on issues such as school choice, gun rights, immigration and state spending.

The rule change was near the top of new Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s wish list. The former state senator and tea party favorite first sought to change the rule in 2007 when he was voted down 30-1 on his first day in the Legislature.

Less than a decade later, Patrick is the new presiding officer over the chamber and delivered on a promise to consolidate GOP voting power after the party’s sweeping success in the November elections.

“It will help us deliver a conservative agenda a majority of Texas voters elected us to pass,” Patrick said after the vote.

Republicans needed only a majority vote to make the much-watched change. The 20-10 vote broke mostly along party lines, with Sen. Eddie Lucio Brownsville as the only Democrat to join Republicans in support. One Republican, Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, did not vote.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who pushed for the change to 19, said it still didn’t go far enough for some Republicans who wanted straight “majority rule” - or 16 members - to pass bills. Eltife noted that it will still take a “super majority” to bring bills to a vote.

The old two-thirds rule had been in place since 1947 and was among the few tools left for Democrats to force negotiations with Republicans, who have controlled the Senate since 1999 and held majorities in both the House and Senate since 2003.

The staid Senate is steeped in tradition, however, which had helped thwart similar attempts to change the rules during recent sessions.

The Republican-led Senate has carved out special exceptions to the voting rule several times over the last decade, most notably to pass controversial voter identification and redistricting laws that are being challenged in court.

In 2003, Senate Democrats fled the state to New Mexico over a redistricting vote, effectively shutting down Senate business for a month before returning home.

Sen. Jon Whitmire, D-Houston, chided Republicans by noting that they had found plenty of ways to get around the rule in the past.

“I can’t think of anything you haven’t been able to do,” Whitmire said.

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