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Tempers Flare in Texas House Amid Fears of Walkout

AUSTIN, Texas -- Tension between Texas House members came to a head Saturday, when Republicans grew frustrated over Democrats' attempts to use House rules to halt contentious legislation. 

The bickering started when House Republicans attempted to put the chamber on lockdown over fears that Democrats may be planning a walkout. 

Democrats stayed, and Republican leaders eventually abandoned the planned lockdown, but the dustup sparked simmering tensions over the procedural tactics. 

Democrats have used the rules over the last few days to stall several bills important to the GOP, including legislation to place limits on lawsuits and a bill that would have loosened mandates on school districts. 

But Saturday, Republican Rep. Brandon Creighton used House rules to bypass Democratic objections and force a vote without allowing amendments or deliberation on a bill that would make it tougher to bring a civil lawsuit. The legislation also would allow defendants to collect costs if they prevail in cases of breach of an oral or written contract. 

Over angry protests from Democrats, the House passed it before adjourning for the day. 

Creighton said the bill will make civil courts more efficient, while opponents say it will discourage people from bringing suits because of the fear of paying huge legal costs if they lose. Creighton said amendments could be considered during a final procedural vote on the bill. 

"This is a House that has 101-49 margin, so I think to rely on small, but within-the-rules points to gum up the system, the 101 (Republicans) are only willing to allow that to stand for so long," House Speaker Joe Straus said. 

Rumors had swirled Saturday morning that Democrats would try to walkout, leaving the House without the required two-thirds of its members present to conduct business. But most Democrats were present when Republican Rep. Warren Chisum asked Straus to "put a call" on the House, which meant that the doors would be locked and lawmakers would be prohibited from leaving the chamber. 

Republicans have a 101-49 grip on the chamber and could conduct business without any Democrats present. But, on the Saturday session before Mother's Day, many Republicans also were absent. 

After a House sergeant-at-arms locked the back door, a handful of Democrats became irate and demanded the doors be unlocked while Straus ruled on Chisum's request. 

After several moments, Chisum revoked his request, but House business came to a halt as leaders discussed their next move. 

Republican leaders eventually announced a plan to move some of the contentious priority bills to Monday's schedule. Rep. Todd Hunter said he would ask that "all necessary rules" be suspended on Monday, so Democrats could not use the rules to again deter the legislation. 

"You're the chair, you're the officer of the rules," Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer yelled at Straus. "We threw out a chair because he didn't want to enforce the rules. If you don't want to enforce the rules, that's on you. That's not on me." 

Without the support he needed, Hunter withdrew his proposal. 

"The integrity of the House and the House rules should always be protected and a suspension of the rules is a major, major departure," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat. "I do believe that this is a significant departure from the way we have practiced in this House ... I do not agree with what is taking place here and I do think it is an abridgement of what this House stands for." 

Straus said he hopes the move to force the vote without debate doesn't happen again. 

"I would have preferred ... to set the contentious bills aside ... wait until Monday to preserve the order," Straus said. "The other side dug in." 

The chamber finally agreed to adjourn, leaving a lengthy list of legislation pending. 

The legislative session comes to a close at the end of the month, and lawmakers are nearing deadlines to get their bills voted out of the House. 

"Everyone gets emotional about legislation, their bills, what they're here for 140 days, what they campaigned on," Straus said. "So I hope that with some rest, reflection and a sense of collegiality that has been the hallmark of the last few years .. that that will be remembered on Monday and we can resolve our differences."

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