The reputation of Joe Straus’s speakership is suddenly on the line.
Through much of this legislative session, Straus has been an able foil for Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Straus and his House leadership team have blocked Patrick’s social conservative agenda on bathrooms and private school vouchers. Then a series of cracks in Straus’s control of the House over the past two weeks has put Patrick in a powerful position.
Seizing the moment of Straus’s weakness, Patrick on Wednesday took key pieces of legislation hostage and threatened to force a special legislative session if the House did not submit to his agenda like serfs before the lord. Cell phones throughout the Capitol lit up as lobbyists watched the live stream of Patrick’s morning news conference. If the House failed to please him, Patrick said, the blame for failure would rest on Straus’s head. “Whether we have a special session is now in the hands of the speaker,” Patrick said. He said if the House fails to pass his agenda, he will ask Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session on issues such as transgender bathroom restrictions. And if the House continues to stall, “I will ask the governor to call us back again and again and again.”
In the hallway behind the House chamber, Straus attempted to assure journalists that all is well, even as he admitted that he and Patrick have not spoken for a while. “I believe more in consensus than demands and threats. My experience in the House is the House doesn’t take threats very well,” Straus said. He said time remains to resolve problems before the regular session ends on May 29.
We predicted back in February that Patrick would be the politician in charge this year under the Capitol’s pink granite dome. Some lobbyists referred to Patrick as the real governor of Texas, because Abbott is largely missing from the scene. Whatever portion of Abbott’s agenda that has passed or will pass did so because it also was Patrick’s agenda. Patrick has been the leader on social conservative issues such as restricting bathroom access to birth gender and a crackdown on law enforcement agencies that refuse to help the federal government deport undocumented immigrants no matter how small their crime.
Those were issues that big business opposed and counted on Straus and his House leadership team to halt. Corporations complained the transgender bathroom bill would harm employee recruitment, and cost Texas major sporting events and concerts. The House would be the stopper at best and the chamber of moderation at worst.
Straus initially played able defense. He slowed down the appointment of House committees and the consideration of legislation. Straus never even referred the Senate’s tough bathroom bill to a House committee for consideration. Then the House, on a vote of 104-33, punched Patrick and Abbott in the nose with a budget amendment to block state spending on any form of a private school voucher program. The House followed that up with a 91-48 vote on what some described as the middle-finger-to-Abbott bill that would forbid a governor from appointing to state agencies and commissions anyone who had donated more than $2,500 to his or her political account.
Joe Straus looked like a speaker unquestionably in charge. Then things started falling apart.
The problems for the speaker have been caused by a small group of Republican legislators known as the Freedom Caucus. The core group is nine lawmakers out of the 150-member House, and sometimes they can get their vote up to nineteen. Even some conservative Republicans complain that the Freedom Caucus is not truly Republican, but rather a group of libertarians more bent on causing chaos in the House than anything else. Some of the most prominent members are Matt Schaefer of Tyler, Jeff Leach of Plano, and Matt Rinaldi of Irving. Their titular leader is Bedford Representative Jonathan Stickland, who uses parliamentary rules to kill other members’ bills and then strongly objects when his own legislation suffers a similar fate. The Freedom Caucus opposes Straus but have generally been an ineffective annoyance.
That changed on April 27, when the House endured sixteen hours of debate on an anti-immigration bill to address so-called sanctuary cities. In the course of the debate, Schaefer offered an amendment to prevent police chiefs from restricting their officers from asking people who have been detained about their immigration status. In a moment of conciliation, Schaefer offered to pull down his amendment if Democrats would stop offering their own amendments designed to make Republicans look heartless and cruel. Some Democrats wanted to take the deal, but Representatives Armando Walle of Houston, Cesar Blanco of El Paso and Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio argued against it. By refusing to compromise, the three guaranteed that the so-called “show me your papers” amendment would become part of the bill that Abbott eventually signed into law.
But undeniably, Straus had an opportunity to affect the outcome of that bill. He could have kept it bottled up as he was doing with the bathroom bill, though he had allowed a similar sanctuary cities bill to go through the House in 2011. Straus also could have demanded discipline out of his chairs to vote against Schaefer. The amendment went on the bill by a vote of 81-64, with fourteen of Straus’s committee chairs voting for the Schaefer amendment, while three other members of his leadership team were away at a conference committee on the budget. Straus needed to switch only a dozen votes to keep the most controversial language out of the bill.
The Freedom Caucus was empowered, at least in perception.
In the days that followed, caucus members got an amendment on a foster care bill to prevent the vaccination of children who have been removed from their homes until a court ordered the child’s permanent removal. And last week they used maneuvers to slow down the House calendar so that a “safety net” bill failed to pass to keep agencies subject to the sunset review process alive even if their reauthorization legislation failed. And finally, they won passage of an amendment to a State Bar of Texas bill to make it an affirmative defense for a lawyer under disciplinary review to claim he or she acted because of a sincerely held religious belief—an amendment that Democrats viewed as giving lawyers the ability to discriminate against the LGBT community.
After the religious beliefs amendment passed on a vote of 85-59, Representative Rafael Anchia of Dallas blurted out, “Last session these guys couldn’t pass gas. Now they’re running the floor.”
Several senior Republican members of the Straus leadership team have told me they don’t feel like anyone is in charge in the House. One called it a rudderless ship. None said they are ready to abandon Straus or revolt against him, though the frustration is rising.
With the Freedom Caucus suddenly finding some success in the House, Patrick no doubt saw an opportunity to reassert control of the session. The death of the House version of the “safety net” bill was important. It’s called a safety net bill because it allows agencies under sunset review to continue operating. It has to pass. With the demise of the House’s bill, the only option left is the Senate’s version. And Patrick made clear he intends to hold that bill hostage.
In his press conference Wednesday, flanked by the flags of Texas and the United States, Patrick noted that he had control of the Senate version of the safety net bill. Then he demanded the House surrender on using the state’s rainy day fund to pay for a revenue shortfall in the budget; that the House accept both a private school voucher program in a substantially reduced school funding plan, and a controversial property tax reform for cities and counties; and that some form of his bathroom bill receive House approval. Otherwise, Patrick would force a special session to get what he wants.
While talking to reporters today, Straus admitted the death of the safety net bill in the House gave Patrick the opportunity to “make threats and demands. It was unfortunate. I’m not sure it gave anyone positive momentum.”
The past two weeks may not have given Patrick additional momentum, but it took the gas out of Straus.