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The unity and levity in the Texas House on the last day of the regular session directed toward Speaker Dade Phelan belied the political strife of the previous few days.
“We always go through ups and downs, that’s the nature of the Legislature,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, as the House prepared to adjourn the regular session. “But what we’re really here to tell you is: You did a great job. Thanks for being a friend to the Texas House of Representatives. Thanks for standing up for the Texas House. Thanks for bringing integrity to the Texas House.”
That praise was echoed throughout the day by House Republicans and Democrats in their own floor speeches. And it was a stark shift in tone from the escalating tensions that had hovered over the Legislature in recent days, culminating in a walkout by House Democrats that killed a controversial GOP elections bill, which the minority party said would restrict voting rights.
Since the regular session ended last week, though, Phelan has been fending off criticism about his leadership from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the speaker’s GOP counterpart in the Senate, who has blamed the speaker for failing to pass certain conservative priorities.
“We’re a conservative Republican state, and we don’t need a speaker who’s kowtowing to Democrats not to hurt their feelings or make them look bad when they go home,” Patrick told Dallas radio host Mark Davis on Wednesday. “That’s not our job. They lost the election, we won.”
Meanwhile, Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, has said he’s satisfied with his first legislative session as leader of the House, with the exception of the failure of the elections bill and priority bail legislation that was also killed with the Democrats’ walkout. In interviews over the past week, Phelan has touted a list of conservative wins, such as passing legislation to let Texans carry handguns without a license and approving some of the strictest restrictions on abortion in the country.
“I’m going back to Beaumont feeling really good about the 87th session, considering all we had stacked against us and where we ended up,” Phelan told The Texas Tribune in a June 1 interview. “We’ll be back sooner rather than later … and we’ll pick up whatever the governor wants us to do.”
Tensions aside, Phelan’s standing among House members — his colleagues who elected him speaker at the beginning of the year with near unanimous support — will be crucial heading into at least two special legislative sessions on the horizon, and with big-ticket items such as that controversial elections legislation and redistricting set to take center stage.
Dan Patrick’s criticisms
The strained dynamics between the two chambers hit a peak on the final day for the House to pass Senate legislation, when three of Patrick’s priority bills died before the deadline.
Those priorities included legislation that could have led to a ban on using local government funds to pay for lobbyists, a measure that would ban social media companies from blocking people based on their viewpoints and a bill that would force transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity.
Days later, on another crucial legislative deadline, Democrats orchestrated a mass walkout to break quorum, which prevented the chamber from considering a vote on those elections and bail bills — two priorities for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — as well as a number of other pieces of legislation.
The most recent version of Senate Bill 7 that died was a sweeping bill that would have, among other things, created new limitations to early voting hours and curbed local voting options like drive-thru voting. The bill related to the bail system would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.
Patrick accused Phelan of slowing the passage of Republican priorities in the lower chamber to appease House Democrats, whose support helped win him the gavel. The lieutenant governor has also criticized Phelan for recessing the House for a couple of days in late May as lawmakers ran up against deadlines to pass legislation.
The speaker said the move was needed to ease quickly escalating tensions between the two chambers and that it did not impact certain priorities like SB 7 from failing to pass.
Abbott, for his part, hasn’t echoed Patrick’s argument that the speaker was partly to blame for the elections bill failure and has instead aimed his criticism at House Democrats.
“I think I’m not going to engage,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty during an interview Thursday when asked whether he agreed with Patrick’s criticism. “I’ll consider this halftime of this game. … We just didn’t get it done in the first half, but we look forward to getting it done in the second half.”
As punishment for the Democrats’ walkout, Abbott has vowed to block pay for the Legislature by vetoing a certain section of the state budget. Phelan has raised concerns with the governor’s move should he go through with it, saying that it could harm government employees and other legislative agencies that did not play a role in the walkout.
In response to Phelan’s concerns, Abbott has said the speaker “has a role to play here” and “needs to step up and get the job done.”
“He’s not some outside viewer,” the governor said. “He’s a participant.”
“The House is going to operate by the rules”
Some Democrats have rejected the notion that Phelan was “kowtowing” to their demands, arguing they played defense much of the session on highly contentious social issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, elections and guns.
Still, Democratic leaders said Phelan fostered a respect for the chamber’s rules, which include certain limits on when legislation can be eligible for consideration before the entire chamber. That adherence to the rules, they said, gave them confidence that they understood the terms of engagement for floor debate with GOP members.
“Without rules, you don’t have the foundation of the legislative process that’s necessary to ensure its integrity,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus in the lower chamber. “The House is going to operate by the rules, that is my hope and my expectation. That means that each of the 150 members of the House will get to have some say in what happens.”
Some Democrats were able to finally push through causes they had championed unsuccessfully for years. State Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, praised Phelan for including her bill extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers as part of the speaker’s priority health care package. A number of lawmakers had fought for years to extend that coverage as a way of fighting maternal mortality after birth.
“I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Rose said during a House floor speech on the last day of session. “This legislation is groundbreaking. It was a win for all mothers. … There’s no doubt in my mind that had you not put your leadership behind it we may not have accomplished it.”
Democrats also managed to stave off bills that targeted transgender kids. Those bills included efforts to ban gender-affirming health care and charging parents who provide those treatments with child abuse.
The biggest battle, though, was over legislation that would restrict the participation of transgender students in school sports. That bill, which was one of Patrick’s priorities, died in committee but was revived and eventually scheduled for a vote on the House floor. On the final day it could be approved, the bill was postponed without explanation and never considered.
Referring to the night House Democrats broke quorum, Phelan has said publicly that he would not lock the chamber doors or send authorities after lawmakers — two actions he has the authority to do as speaker.
Patrick, though, has said the speaker should have taken a harder line against Democrats.
“This time, I hope the speaker won’t say, ‘Well, if you don’t like this bill, it’s OK to walk,’” Patrick said in an interview with Davis, the Dallas radio show host. “No, lock the doors or send the state troopers to get them.”
Despite taking that heat, there are no immediate outward signs that Phelan’s hold on the gavel is in trouble.
As Patrick has aired his criticisms against the speaker, a number of House Republicans have taken to Twitter to defend Phelan, arguing that passing legislation such as the permitless carry bill would not have been possible without his leadership.
State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, wrote on Twitter that Phelan “was the only leader in Texas House history to allow for [the] flow of legislation and bills to hit the floor for votes on Constitutional Carry and Fetal Heartbeat … and they both happened in the same session.”
Another House Republican, James White of Hillister, directly rebutted Patrick, saying the Phelan-led chamber “upset Democrats a whole lot this session.”
“Let me say it here, [Phelan] told me to get #ConstitutionalCarry out of the [House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee] quickly,” he tweeted.
Gun rights activists had tried for years to pass a permitless carry bill, but each attempt until this session had failed to make it far in the legislative process.
Phelan also oversaw the passage of a fetal “heartbeat” bill, which bans abortions as early as six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant. Abortion opponents had criticized Phelan’s predecessor, Republican former speaker Dennis Bonnen, for assigning that bill to a committee chaired by a Democrat, where it eventually died without a hearing.
Republicans further to the right politically have also expressed support for Phelan. In the final week of the legislative session, the Texas House Freedom Caucus, a group of some of the most socially conservative lawmakers in the chamber, urged Abbott “to call the Legislature back into special session immediately” after several GOP priority bills died ahead of a House deadline to pass Senate bills.
On the final day of the session, though, state Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Wallisville Republican who chairs the caucus, praised Phelan’s work as speaker in a speech on the House floor before the chamber gaveled out.
“On behalf of all the members, on behalf of the state of Texas, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for us this session and your service to the state,” Middleton said.