Rare are the times like tonight when the three political parties of the Texas House are so vividly on display, when deals are so distasteful to all involved and frustrations flare into tempestuous displays of angry eyes.
The three parties of the 150-member House are the 52 Democrats and 98 Republicans, who are divided into the factions of the governing adults and the never-give-up-an-inch tea party crowd of evangelicals and gun lovers. A terrible truce normally exists in which sometimes the Democrats combine with the governing Republicans to run down the tea party representatives, while on other occasions the tea party aligns with the governing Republicans to put the Democrats in their place.
Tonight, however, even the factions were splintering. Watching from the gallery was Michael Quinn Sullivan, whose Empower Texans scorecards prompt lawmakers to cast certain votes every day and keeps the House in a constant state of campaign. In another part of the gallery was Joe Basel of the American Phoenix Foundation. Basel and his wife Hannah have used hidden-cameras and aggressive questioners to create a siege mentality for the governing Republicans.
Within this poisonous miasma, governing Republican Byron Cook brought up an ethics reform bill that was designed to expose Sullivan’s dark money operation of mystery donors and to block Basel’s hidden cameras by requiring everyone in the Capitol to obtain a legislator’s permission before filming them or recording their conversations.
Democrats early in the day had cut some deals on other bills and promised not to drag debate on forever on Cook’s ethics bill. The never-give-an-inch conservatives, however, couldn’t bring themselves to cut their losses. They debated the bill for four hours, as the governing Republicans chaffed because every minute that went by meant there was less chance they would beat a midnight deadline to debate bills such as campus carry of handguns. The governing Republicans blamed the tea party crowd for the delays. The gun loving members also were angry at the delays.
Then came a sunset bill on the Department of Family and Protective Services. Republican Scott Sanford had planned to amend the bill with a provision to allow faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. Sanford pulled his amendment down because religious freedom language was going to be added to a bill in the Senate.
The showdown occurred as the House took up the campus carry bill, with Democrats proposing more than 80 amendments so they could keep the bill from coming to a vote before the midnight deadline. Then, at about 11:25 p.m., the series of unfortunate events started to unfold.
In the Senate, Donna Campbell attempted to add anti-gay religious freedom language to a bill, and Democratic Senator Kirk Watson called a point of order. The Senate stood still awaiting a ruling from the chair.
At about that same time, Republican Jeff Leach came forward with 25 signatures in the House to cut off amendments to the campus carry bill. Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer called a point of order to block further debate on the bill. Angry groups of Democrats and Republicans huddled. A deal was cut. Martinez Fischer would withdraw his point of order and an amendment would be added to the bill to require both public and private universities to allow licensed students and faculty to carry handguns. Then a second reading, or tentative approval, vote could be taken on the bill.
Many of the Democrats were angry at Martinez Fischer because they believed they could talk against the bill for 35 minutes. Martinez Fischer said the deal was the best the Democrats could do in a House where the Republicans dominated. He said adding private schools to the bill would increase public opposition to it.
At almost the same time that the campus carry passed in the House, the Senate sustained Watson’s point of order, which killed Campbell’s anti-gay marriage amendment. The House members I talked to claimed there was no deal involving the Senate action, but the coincidence is so great that I cannot let it pass without pointing it out.
The House adjourned shortly after witching hour, and the members went seething into that good night.