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Counting Straws

The House Republican Caucus will meet today to debate whether it should choose a favorite in the race for speaker of the House among the three candidates: the incumbent, Joe Straus of San Antonio, and Warren Chisum of Pampa and Ken Paxton of McKinney. But the vote's not binding. So why do it?

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It (finally) comes to this: The House Republican Caucus will meet today to express its preference in a race for speaker of the House that has three candidates: the incumbent, Joe Straus of San Antonio, and challengers Warren Chisum of Pampa and Ken Paxton of McKinney.

Outside, or somewhere nearby, grassroots and Astroturf activists will be demonstrating for and against the candidates. And tomorrow, the Legislature convenes for its regular session and the House will actually and officially vote on its next leader.

Then we'll have a change of subject, from "Who's going to run this thing?" to "Where are we going?" That second question and the November election results are the backdrop for all of this. You can get the whole layout in our preview of the session, but the politics — especially for Republicans — are unusual. They've got a supermajority, elected in November, and an opportunity to show voters what they mean by limited government, lower taxes, tighter borders and all of that. At the same time, they're finding they've got factions within their own party — and that the issues that appear during campaign season to be black and white usually are more complex.

But first, the race for speaker.

The House GOP Caucus will meet early this afternoon to talk about their favorites in the race. If they get a quorum — that's 51 of their 101 incoming members — they can have a vote to decide whether they want to choose a caucus favorite. If that passes — it requires two-thirds of those present, or a quorum, whichever is greater — they can then select their top candidate. That vote isn't binding, though, meaning everyone could come out for Candidate A in the caucus and then vote for Candidate B when the matter comes before the full House tomorrow.

This is not the first time the GOP has done this. Two years ago, 11 House Republicans met in Austin to choose a candidate from among their ranks, agreeing between themselves to support the winner in a challenge to then-House Speaker Tom Craddick. Straus won the Republican group's vote, which was unsettling news to many others in the party. The Republican Caucus then met at a downtown steakhouse. Craddick told them he didn't have the votes to win re-election, so they expressed a preference for Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo. Smithee began counting noses in the House and came up short; his candidacy ended not long after it began, and Straus was elected on the first day of the session, by acclamation.

So why do it? To hash things out, partly. Chisum, who was appropriations chairman under Craddick (Straus made him vice chairman of environmental regulation), put his toe in the water before the elections. Paxton came in later, and both argued that the new speaker ought to be the favorite of the Republican supermajority. In 2009, more Republicans were for either Craddick or Smithee, initially, than for Straus. And the rationale was that the Republicans should pick a speaker from within their own ranks and serve him or her to the full House — themselves and the 49 Democrats — as the only item on the menu.

Another reason is to identify the factions within the party. The GOP caucus votes are little more than straw polls. They will almost certainly be secret, and even if they're not secret to the members, it is unlikely the members will share the results with the public. But the Republicans in that room would all like to know who lines up with whom. Straus has said he's got more than enough Republican support to win in a caucus vote. Unless you think Paxton or Chisum is hiding a bunch of support, the whole point of the exercise is to cull the herd.

One way to do that is with the first vote the caucus will take on Monday — the vote over whether the members want to express, as a group, a preference in the race for speaker. Another is to hold the preference vote itself. A third comes on Tuesday, when members vote for a speaker and either do it unanimously, or do it with some opposition. Such ballots identified the Craddick D's — Democrats who voted for Republican Craddick for speaker. Later on, that's how observers knew who the so-called ABCs were — the Republicans who would vote for Anybody But Craddick. The ABCs eventually overthrew Craddick; the Craddick D's weren't big enough, eight years after they surfaced, to save him.

If the vote for speaker goes to the floor — that is, if anyone is officially nominated as a challenger to Straus — the House has the choice of voting publicly or privately. A public vote would reveal who's with whom. A private vote would foreshadow a session in which the factions become apparent through votes on other issues that divide the Republicans.

What about the Democrats? Several outside groups on the Republican side have decided this is the Vote of the Session — more important than votes on the budget, redistricting, voter ID, you name it — and say they'll weight their end-of-session ratings to reward anyone who votes against Straus. If, that is, those votes are public.

That bit of electoral extortion offers Democrats a chance to monkey with the ratings used by various groups come the next elections: The Democrats could vote against Straus, get their gold stars from the conservatives for doing so, and use that to offset liberal votes they cast later in the session.

It could even land them to the right of their Republican opponents.

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State government 82nd Legislative Session Joe Straus John Smithee Ken Paxton Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Tom Craddick