Texans in Congress divided over President Donald Trump’s protest response

A view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on April 13, 2020. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The nation’s capital braced for another chaotic night on Tuesday as thousands of people protested in the streets in defiance of a citywide curfew, law enforcement and the United States military.

But during the daylight hours, Texans who serve in Congress and the people who work for them struggled to make sense of the last week's events and how to move forward in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is a senior member of the Texas delegation who serves on a pair of committees that oversee law enforcement and national security. She spent the day marching in Houston with Floyd's family and later in an interview with The Texas Tribune, she compared the mood nationwide to her time serving in office during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She described then-president George W. Bush, as a unifying presence.

"At that moment, we were united as a country. In this instance, it was an American turning on American," she said of the video recording of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes before he died.

Nearly every member of Congress from Texas has publicly condemned the police actions captured in the video. But the fallout, including property damage and theft by protesters in some cities and law enforcement throwing tear gas at demonstrators in front of the White House on Monday pushed the Texans on opposite sides of the aisle further away from one another.

Among a dozen or so current and former delegation staffers, members of Congress and the political consultants who serve them, there is anxiety and worry that the country's political dysfunction has rendered the federal government incapable of addressing the matter legislatively before the November elections.

Earlier in the day, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delegated the writing of legislation to address police misconduct to the Congressional Black Caucus, a powerful bloc within the Democratic caucus.

"We really don't have time to waste," said Jackson Lee, who is both a member of the CBC and the House Judiciary Committee, which will likely have jurisdiction over the issue. "This needs to be to the floor this summer. "

Some Republicans interviewed worried Democrats will produce a bill that is unpalatable to GOP members. And Democrats fear nothing will pass the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. Thanks to the pandemic, House members are not engaging with each other face-to-face, which is typically vital to moving legislation into law.

And unless a bill passed both chambers by a two-thirds majority vote, it would need a presidential signature to become law.

And it is President Trump who is at the center of so much of the fury — both among his admirers and the people marching against his leadership.

That rage came to a head on Monday night, when law enforcement and the National Guard threw tear gas at protestors that multiple reporters on the scene stated were peaceful in their opposition. The protestors were cleared so the president could walk to a graffitied Episcopalian church and pose for photos with a Bible.

Since Thursday when Trump tweeted that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," Texas Republicans avoided criticizing anything the president has said or done. On Tuesday, the state's two senators backed Trump's actions in front of the White House.

"It was important for the president to be there and say we will not be cowed by terrorists," said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, according to The Washington Post.

Similarly, CNN reported that the state's senior senator, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said the action was merited because the crowd refused to move out of the way.

"So obviously, it was a necessary security measure," he told CNN.

Texas Democrats reacted with warnings of a Trump dictatorship.

"His unproven accusations that these protests are being coordinated by terrorist organizations, and disregard for the powers given to the States, put America on a dangerous course towards a dictatorship," U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said about Trump.

A fellow South Texan concurred.

"The very place one should be allowed to protest, and the most constitutionally protected place to protest is on public properties like the White House," U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a McAllen Democrat, said in a statement. "Authorizing the use of force against his fellow Americans and signaling that he will invoke the Insurrection Act to ‘dominate’ peaceful protestors is reflective of a dictatorship not a democracy."

The chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, sent a letter to the director of the U.S. Secret Service demanding a briefing on the matter. Democrats anticipate more calls for either briefings or hearings before members of Congress in the coming weeks, even as Congress is out of session due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The committees involved include many Texans as members.

Despite the turmoil in Washington, U.S. House members were mostly in their own districts on Tuesday. Some were in the streets marching themselves. A handful of Texans marched in Houston with family members of Floyd, who was a native of the Bayou City. That delegation includes the House GOP's lone African American member, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes.

"What we are showing here in Houston is that we we can be outraged by a black man getting murdered in police custody," Hurd said in a self-shot video he posted on Twitter. "We can be united for change in our society and we can be thankful that law enforcement is enabling our First Amendment rights. And we can be pissed that some stupid people are looting and rioting which goes against American values. Everything is not a binary choice."

It's the instances of theft by some protesters around the country that many Republicans have dwelled on. Like the president, Texas Republicans have almost uniformly called for law and order in the same press releases where they express despair over Floyd's death.

It's an argument that frustrates Jackson Lee and plenty of other Texas Democrats.

“Stop talking. We’re all in agreement,” she said. “I have no argument against looters, but I do know that protestors are not all looters.”