Texas Senate Panel Passes New District Map

A Senate committee on Friday approved a GOP-sponsored congressional redistricting map (search), setting the stage for a showdown between Republicans and Democrats when the bill gets to the Senate floor next week.

"I expect a civil debate. I expect it to be emotional," said Republican Sen. Todd Staples of Palestine, who sponsored the map.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he expects a lot of debate. But he conceded that Democrats opposed to redistricting have probably lost the fight in the Legislature if Republicans can work out differences over West Texas (search) districts.

"This'll be a vote along party lines," West said. Republicans have a 19-12 majority in the Senate.

West said the issue of redistricting ultimately will be decided in the courts.

The map is expected to be debated in the Senate on Monday or Tuesday.

The Senate Jurisprudence Committee (search) approved the map on a 4-3 vote along party lines. Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, estimated the map could give Republicans 18 or 19 seats in the congressional delegation that is now ruled 17-15 by Democrats.

The committee vote came after Democrats voiced opposition.

"A vote on this bill is a vote against Democracy and a vote against minority voting rights," said Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston.

West said the redistricting debate has been largely about the impact on minorities.

"I don't see any of you as racist," he said. "Have you been insensitive? I think you have been and that, that insensitivity is the result of not being able to communicate with ethnic minorities in your districts, and maybe you have."

Staples said no minority districts would be significantly affected.

"I feel very confident we have reviewed the court cases, looked at what we thought the justices were telling us and were trying to be respectful of those opinions in this process," Staples said.

The map pairs two incumbents, U.S. Reps. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, and Jim Turner, D-Crockett, in one district.

It also keeps all of McClennan County in one district, all of Cameron County in one district and all of Webb County in one district. Also, it splits Travis County into two districts, as opposed to three districts in a previous map.

Republicans have been trying since April to get a new map approved, arguing that voting trends show Republicans should have more representation in the Texas congressional delegation.

Democrats have thwarted every attempt. The last effort, during the second special legislative session in August, was killed when 11 Senate Democrats blocked a quorum in the chamber by fleeing to New Mexico, out of the reach of Texas law officers. The Democrats returned to the Capitol on Monday, the start of the third special session.

"I think we've been on a vacation from hell," Duncan said.

Duncan himself has been embroiled in a dispute with Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick (search), R-Midland, over how West Texas districts should be drawn.

The map approved Friday keeps Lubbock and Midland counties in the same district, as Duncan wants. But the map approved by the House this week puts the counties in separate districts, as Craddick wants.

"He's got to decide whether he wants to have redistricting. Are we going to have redistricting (or) are we going to have Midland?" asked Duncan. "Is this about Texas or is this about Midland?"

"When they pass a map, then we'll go to conference (committee) and try to pass a map that a majority of people can live with," Craddick spokesman Bob Richter responded.

If each chamber passes a different plan, a committee of senators and representatives would have to work out a deal.

The Senate committee also approved legislation that would move the filing deadline for congressional candidates back a week, making the last day to file Jan. 9.