As redistricting tale ends, fight echoes beyond Texas

Renegade Democrats went back to work in Lone Star state. But they are symbols in a nationwide battle.

After months and three special sessions, the Texas legislature is close to passing versions of its much-maligned congressional redistricting bill.

Eleven Democratic senators, who had famously broken the quorum by fleeing the state July 28, were back at their posts this week, shaking hands and mending relations. Texas congeniality was so prevalent there was even talk of waiving $57,000 in fines levied against them in August.

But although everybody played nice this week, it may not last long. Unless the rules of the legislature are overhauled to prevent future walkouts, this method could well grind future sessions to a halt. Next year's special session on school finance, for example, is being eyed for boycott.

The pitched battle here over redistricting also reflects deepening concerns by Democrats nationwide surrounding what they see as GOP efforts to circumvent the electoral process.

"In the minds of Democrats, Republicans are trying to systematically reverse elections around the country: from the impeachment of Bill Clinton to the recount in Florida to the recall in California to redistricting in Colorado and Texas," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of Quorum Report, a political newsletter based in Austin. "That's one of the things that made this Texas battle rise to such extreme showmanship on the part of the Democrats."

Indeed, Democrats across the country openly supported the Texas revolt, sending money and encouragement. They see the redrawing of congressional districts as a pivotal issue, which could tilt the balance in favor of Republicans for years to come. And they blame top GOP leaders in Washington, including US House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas and White House political adviser Karl Rove, for forcing the issue in certain states long before law requires it.

For his part, Mr. DeLay has never denied the assertion, saying it's his job to ensure that Republicans win more seats nationwide. In Colorado, for instance, GOP legislators redrew a congressional map that was set two years ago after the 2000 Census. Colorado Democrats took the map to court and, last week, oral arguments were heard in the case. A group of Texas Democrats were there in support of the lawsuit, pronouncing recent GOP actions as "a national power grab."

BUT the wrangling in Texas is also a local affair. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans have a majority in the House, Senate, and most statewide offices. The transition hasn't been smooth. Democrats, who are learning what it's like to be in the minority, have used an array of legislative procedures to block and kill unwanted bills. Republicans have been less than eager to make concessions or build bridges. "The Republican Party has been going through a process of learning what it's like to be the majority party, and it's been a steep learning curve," says Tucker Gibson, a political scientist at Trinity University in San Antonio. "They have some growing up to do."

Whether they take this opportunity to forgive and forget or - as it often goes in politics - to forgive and remember, is yet to be seen. But one thing is for sure, says Dr. Gibson, this state's model of bipartisan politics is gone for good.

Already there is talk of adopting new legislative rules as soon as possible to change the numbers needed for a quorum from two-thirds to a simple majority, and to institutionalize fines and penalties for future boycotters.

"Unless the ability to break quorum is taken out of the legislative arsenal, it will be used again - and often," says David Guenthner of The Lone Star Report, an Austin-based newsletter. "And that is chaos. Part of the whole theory of a democracy is that you bring representatives of the people together to sit down at a table and figure out how to meet everyone's interest."

But Mr. Kronberg, his counterpart at the Quorum Report, doesn't see a looming constitutional crisis. He believes Republicans are at the apogee of their voting strength right now, and he cautions them on taking away the ability to boycott. "When Republicans return to the minority, they will face something of comparable importance, and they are going to rue the day they took this action."

Both sides have used quorum-busting in the past, most notably in 1979 when a group of 12 Democrats hid out in anger over a bill that would have changed the primary-election schedule. They eventually returned to the capitol after Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby promised to kill the bill.

In this year's case, a group of House Democrats bolted to Oklahoma during the regular legislative session. Then senators broke quorum and headed to Albuquerque, N.M., during a special session. Finally, one runaway senator said the fight had to be finished inside the capitol.

The irony of the whole affair is that GOP lawmakers are now squabbling among themselves over the redistricting plan. At issue are the boundaries in West Texas, a standoff that even DeLay could not resolve in a meeting last week.

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