AUSTIN, Texas — The general election was more than a month ago, yet the Republican tidal wave keeps getting bigger in Texas.
With one state House member scheduled to announce Tuesday that he is switching from Democrat to Republican — and another expected to do the same — Republicans will have at least 100 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2011 legislative session.
That gives the GOP a critical supermajority, meaning it has the power to roll over Democrats on key votes in a session where lawmakers will be wrangling over a projected budget shortfall of $20 billion or more, immigration, redistricting and other high-profile issues. The session begins Jan. 11.
"Democrats are going to have to strategically pick their battles and figure out how to work with Republicans in a new world," said GOP consultant Eric Bearse. "You're going to see a lot of conservative legislation make it out of the House."
Republicans gained control of the House in 2003 but had seen their majority dwindle to 77 seats in 2009, the last time the Legislature met. November's tea party-fueled conservative tide pushed their margin back up to 99 in the 150-member chamber.
Democrat Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland in East Texas was scheduled to announce his switch to the Republican party at a news conference at the state party headquarters on Tuesday. The parties are also watching to see if Democrat Rep. Aaron Pena of Edinburg on the border will also switch.
Ritter, who has served rural District 21 since 1999, has said he's watched the district grow more Republican and conservative over the years.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie was angered by Ritter's planned switch.
"Given that Rep. Ritter was just elected as a Democrat, an immediate party switch would indicate that his is not a principled decision . he should show the voters enough respect to resign and seek election as a Republican," Richie said.
Once Republicans have 100 seats, they will have the power to suspend House rules that govern how the chamber does business, a large hammer to hold over Democrats who used their numbers to slow down key votes on a voter identification bill in 2009.
And if Democrats get as desperate as they did in 2003, when they shut down the chamber by running to Ardmore, Okla., to stop a vote on a redistricting, Republicans would have the 100-member majority required by the state Constitution to keep the chamber working and passing bills — with or without Democrats.
In less drastic scenarios, the 100-member majority just makes it easier to pass Republican bills whether or not all Republicans support them, Bearse said.
"Republicans are going to find more and more that their battles are within their own party," Bearse said. "But (100) does mean that bills that need a simple majority will be much easier to pass. Anything that requires a simple majority can be done and I expect will be done if it's a leading conservative agenda item."