Shuffling of Senate Chairs May Be Nod to Critics

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on July 31, 2012, in Houston addressing the crowd at a watch party following the announcement that he lost the U.S. Senate runoff to Ted Cruz.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on July 31, 2012, in Houston addressing the crowd at a watch party following the announcement that he lost the U.S. Senate runoff to Ted Cruz.

Fresh off a bruising defeat in the Republican primary in which Ted Cruz and the Tea Party tore his legislative record to shreds, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst rejiggered the Senate’s levers of power Thursday with some changes that could be viewed as a conciliatory gesture to some of those conservative critics.

Dewhurst shuffled the chairmanships of some of the Senate’s most powerful committees and cut the number of committees led by Democrats by scuttling the International Relations and Trade Committee, which had been headed by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. 

Two of the changes — tapping Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to take over for retiring Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, as head of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to replace Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, as chair of Higher Education — stand out in light of issues Dewhurst found himself playing defense on during the primary.

“All the moves were about realigning specific members’ talents to where they would be best aligned,” Dewhurst spokesman Matt Hirsch said Thursday.

During this year’s U.S. Senate primary, Cruz focused much of his energy on painting Dewhurst as a timid moderate with a history of appeasing to liberals and moderates. A long list of conservative proposals that never passed was laid at Dewhurst’s feet. Conservative victories were dismissed as having been accomplished in spite of Dewhurst’s efforts.

 

After putting about $20 million of his own money into the U.S. Senate race, Dewhurst lost to Cruz in a July runoff by more than 100,000 votes. Dewhurst has since announced plans to run for re-election in 2014 but already faces competitors. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples have launched campaigns; Patrick is among those who have previously discussed running for the position.

Dewhurst enters the next session with less political clout than when he exited the last one, said former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff.

“If he tries to dictate the agenda, it may be difficult after taking a licking like that,” Ratliff said. “If he simply operates as a presiding officer to let the Senate do its job, I don’t see any difficulty in that.”

Repeatedly during the primary, Cruz pointed to Zaffirini’s position as head of the Higher Education Committee as the reason efforts to repeal a state program that allows some immigrants in-state tuition rates failed during the 2011 session.

“He chose to send that bill to a committee that was chaired by a liberal Democrat,” ending its chances of passage, Cruz said on Patrick’s radio show earlier this year. “His actions speak much louder than his campaign rhetoric.”

Zaffirini told The Texas Tribune on Thursday that she never killed a bill that reached her committee just because she opposed it.

"I might work against it, I might speak against it, I will vote against it, but I have never ever killed a bill in a committee I chaired that had the votes,” she said.

Patrick’s appointment as head of the powerful Education Committee marks the culmination of a striking shift in his relationship with Dewhurst. At the end of the 2011 session, Patrick had a large coalition of conservative activists aligned with him in an effort to pass a bill applying criminal penalties to federal airport security agents who conduct intrusive pat-downs. When the bill faced opposition in the Senate, Patrick blamed Dewhurst and publicly criticized him. Talk of the death of the "TSA bill" by Dewhurst became a regular feature at Cruz rallies.

 

Yet Patrick emerged as one of Dewhurst’s most vocal campaign supporters during the primary, even drawing accusations from Cruz that he was a secret surrogate of the campaign.

“I’m passionate about this, and I’m fired up and I’m grateful the lieutenant governor gave me this opportunity,” Patrick said Thursday.

State Republican leaders, including Dewhurst, have said school choice legislation such as private school vouchers will get strong attention in the next session. Patrick described his planned focus on the issue as one in partnership with Dewhurst.

“The lieutenant governor and I are going to work hand in hand on this,” Patrick said. “The governor is going to work hand in hand with us. The time is now. The window of opportunity is now.”

Under the latest committee chair assignments, Senate Democrats will hold five of 17 chairmanships. That’s a slight shift in the balance of power from the last legislative session, in which Democrats held the lead spot in six of 19 committees.

The leadership changes could be viewed as Dewhurst’s efforts to recognize the body’s expected shift to the right next session. As many as six senators may be replaced by more conservative freshmen, including Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, who is likely to replace Shapiro, and Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who is set to succeed retiring Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

That, and Cruz’s victory in the primary, may impact the behavior of many lawmakers, not just Dewhurst, Ratliff said.

“Frankly, just the nomination of Ted Cruz probably pushes everybody to the right if they’re trying to protect their right flank,” Ratliff said. “It may move everybody to the right or at least they will be making efforts to protect themselves.”

Reporter Reeve Hamilton contributed to this report.

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