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After passing sunset bills in midnight meeting, Senate clear to push forward with rest of special session agenda

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James Barragan, The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN -- The Texas Senate met at midnight Thursday, at the behest of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to approve the must-pass sunset bills -- a prerequisite to debating the rest of the items on the agenda for the special legislative session.

Shortly after the Senate gave the sunset bills final approval, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded his call to allow lawmakers to tackle the remaining 19 issues, largely conservative ones that Patrick supports.

"With the passage of this legislation in the Texas Senate, as promised, I'm immediately adding all the remaining items on my special session agenda," Abbott said in a prepared statement released at 1:10 a.m. "I look forward to continuing to work with both the Senate and House to get legislation on all these items to my desk."

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick holds pizza and soda inside the Senators' Room just before the senate reconvenes at 12:01 a.m. for a third reading of the Sunset Bill during the third day of a special legislative session on Thursday, July 20, 2017 at the Texas state capitol in Austin, Texas. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)Staff Photographer
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick holds pizza and soda inside the Senators' Room just before the senate reconvenes at 12:01 a.m. for a third reading of the Sunset Bill during the third day of a special legislative session on Thursday, July 20, 2017 at the Texas state capitol in Austin, Texas. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer

After Abbott's proclamation, the Senate moved to refer their proposed bills -- which include items like property taxes, school voucher-type help for parents of kids with special needs and the so-called bathroom bill -- to committees for hearings on Friday.

To do that, the Senate had to suspend a rule that allows senators to "tag" bills they don't support, blocking their hearing in committee for 48 hours. Democrats opposed the move, saying that it violates the legislative process and that the rule had not been suspended in past special sessions.

They also said some of the bills Republicans were trying to refer had not been made publicly available. The so-called bathroom bill from Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, for example, was referred to the state affairs committee, but its text was not available on the Texas Legislature's website.

"We have new bills that members and the public have not had enough time to study and to consider," said Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

The rule was suspended on a party-line vote of 20-11. Several committees are set to hear bills Friday, allowing them to move forward at an expedited rate.

Patrick, the Senate president, called the senators back at midnight as part of an effort to put pressure on the House, which blocked many of Patrick's favored bills -- including the bathroom bill and vouchers for students to use public funds to attend private school -- during the regular session.

The agency "sunset" legislation failed to pass in the regular session, giving Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick a reason to demand that Abbott call lawmakers back. The bills extend the life of the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors, and four other licensing panels for mental health therapists.

During the special session, Patrick is running a hurry-up offense to get all 20 items on Abbott's agenda approved in the Senate by the middle of next week. If the bills are then not taken up or approved by the House, Patrick could point the finger at its members, saying he gave the lower chamber of the Legislature enough time to act.

Patrick attempted to give the required agency sunset bills final approval in the Senate on Wednesday but ran into a roadblock when the usually compliant Senate Democrats refused to give him the necessary votes to suspend a state constitutional requirement that bills be read on three separate legislative days.

Democratic senators said they refused to go along because Patrick had trampled on the public's right to participate in the legislative process by ramming through legislation.

But Patrick downplayed any dissent, saying he was working fast to pass the 20 items that he deemed "the people's priorities."

FEATURED PHOTO:  Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presides over the Texas Senate on the second day of a special session ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. Conservatives in the state Senate are swiftly advancing sunset legislation, a regulatory bill that must pass before the legislature can work on anti-abortion measures, school vouchers and defanging local ordinances in Texas' big and liberal cities. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)