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First lady's visit highlights divisions in Texas Senate


With 31 members, every vote counts on some issues

Perhaps it took first lady Michelle Obama to underscore an unofficial new rule in the Texas Senate: Don't plan on being absent anytime soon.

On Wednesday, as lawmakers grew increasingly edgy over a growing list of contentious legislation, Sens. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Royce West, D-Dallas, asked for permission to leave for several hours to greet Obama as she made a stop in the Alamo City.

Van de Putte said she had invited Obama to "see what Texas is doing to support military families" in a city with several military installations and thousands of active-duty and veterans' families.

Realizing that two "no" votes would be away, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican who represents parts of southern Travis County, signaled that he would ask for a vote to debate his controversial bill allowing concealed handgun licensees to carry their guns legally inside public college and university buildings.

Twenty-one votes are needed to bring up a bill for debate. Wentworth still had 20, after losing an initial shot at debating Senate Bill 354 last Thursday and a second attempt on Monday.

Word quickly spread. Van de Putte said she and West asked to be "accommodated" — Senate-speak for getting assurances from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican who presides over the Senate, that the bill would not be brought up while they were gone.

It's a courtesy that's often granted.

"We were turned down," Van de Putte said.

Sen. John Whitmire, the Senate's longest-serving member, said Dewhurst suggested that he might vote "no" to maintain the status quo until West and Van de Putte could return. But Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, supports the bill.

"I'm not going to do that," Whitmire said he told Dewhurst. "I'm not going to flip-flop around here like that. This isn't a carnival. This is the Texas Senate."

So West and Van de Putte stayed put at the Capitol. San Antonio's mayor served as the official greeter for the first lady — "for a visit that was on my invitation," Van de Putte noted, not smiling.

In the clubby, 31-member upper chamber, it is unusual for such unpleasantness to slip out in public.

Most such disagreements are worked out behind closed doors or in the senators' private lounge behind the chamber.

Even so, as the Senate recessed for the day Wednesday, Democrats seemed to be in agreement that missing a day between now and the end of the session May 30 would be unwise.

In addition to Wentworth's bill, Van de Putte and others noted that there are other measures that Democrats want to block, several of which already are on the calendar for possible action.

One is a GOP-supported resolution seeking a constitutional amendment requiring that certain tax bills receive a vote of two-thirds of each legislative chamber to be approved.

"When would it be a good time to be absent between now and end of the session?" Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, asked rhetorically. "Never."

Several Republicans suggested privately that they, too, should heed that advice, noting that there are several bills they don't support that are also within one vote of being debated.

As for the campus carry bill, Wentworth said he intends to be present "counting votes every day."

That way, he said, he can ask for a vote "when I see that I have the votes I need."


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