Cue the music from The Twilight Zone: As reporters gathered to pose questions to David Dewhurst after today's Senate session, John Whitmire walked by and commented to a staff member, "I don't even know what a normal day around here is anymore."
He should have stuck around.
The press briefing began normally enough, with Steve Ogden and Judith Zaffirini flanking Dewhurst as he convincingly praised the Senate Finance Committee's product, which will be heard on the floor tomorrow. Good stuff for public ed, higher ed, and still, the committee was able to find a fair way to deal with the Frew settlement.
So far, so good.
Then San Antonio Express-News reporter Gary Scharrar asked about differences between the House and Senate on CHIP eligibility, mentioning that a group of pastors held a press conference this morning calling Dewhurst a hypocrite. He repeated the widely-disseminated blog-posting by the Lone Star Project criticizing Dewhurst for advocating six-month re-ups for CHIP parents, while some of Dewhurst's businesses failed to keep up with required government filings.
Ogden leaned into the microphones and noted how much more money the Senate bill would invest in CHIP: 1.8 billion, up from 1 billion. And Dewhurst reminded reporters how he and Ogden stood up for CHIP in 2003 in conference committee negotiations with the House.
Then Dewhurst's temperature started to rise. The whole argument about twelve-month eligility versus six-months "has been made up by zealots and magnified by the press," he said.
Then it was Zaffirini's turn to try to keep the calm. She praised Dewhurst for being a "great champion" of Medicaid, which after all, is a higher priority than CHIP.
Dewhurst's press secretary signaled last question, and Scharrar followed up: The pastors group complained that it had not been able to meet with Dewhurst, despite calling for an appointment for several months.
"I have the most-open office approach of anyone," Dewhurst said.
As he stepped away from the podium, Scharrar handed him a letter signed by the ministers requesting the meeting. While the letter was dated today, it mentions the group has had difficulty obtaining a meeting with Dewhurst.
Seeing the date, Dewhurst blew up. "This is dated today? They're complaining and they just asked for the meeting today?" he said in disbelief. "Shame on you! Shame on you! How dare you!" he went on, flinging the letter back at Scharrar. "We have never seen this, but we will call them to come in." And then he stalked off.
Adding to the surrealness of the moment, Zaffirini stood three feet from the outburst, but never lost focus on her CHIP/Medicaid message.
The meltdown was perhaps not surprising given the stress Dewhurst has been under recently. Senate members unhappy with his leadership have tried to round up votes to block the budget bill on the floor to protest Zaffirini's appointment to the conference committee. And Dewhurst's banner campaign issue -- Jessica's law -- has been stalled for lack of votes on the Senate floor.
Dewhurst's position on Jessica's Law has frustrated many senators, who oppose it on the advice of prosecutors and victim's groups. They say an automatic death penalty would actually make it more difficult to prosecute cases as victims must often testify against family members. An automatic death penalty would likely silence those victims.
Negotiations have been ongoing, though senators question the presence of Dewhurst political advisers at those meetings. Dewhurst at one point told a senator he would campaign against him in his district if continued to oppose the bill.
But Bob Duell, the Senate sponsor, assured me late this morning that a compromise had been reached that he believed Dewhurst could support. "It seems reasonable," Duell said. The death penalty would not apply except for second, aggravated cases of sexual assaults of children.
Meanwhile, Florence Shapiro's SB 78, which creates a new offense of "continued sexual assault," has been awaiting a floor hearing for two weeks, despite widespread Senate support.
Senators from both parties talk openly about Dewhurst's "laser-like focus" on his 2010 guberatorial bid, and say they believe good public policy has been subjugated to political ambition. "It's too bad he thinks we're his campaign committee," one senator told me.
Do we really have to have a session in 2009?
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