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For Big Three, Session Ends as It Started: It's Complicated

If you wanted to know where the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House would stand at the end of the legislative session, you could have seen it all months ago.

Texas' three leaders (l to r), House Speaker Joe Straus, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appear at the Texas C...

It should have been obvious in January.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was speaking to a group of Capitol reporters at a lunch on the third day of the legislative session, when silenced cell phones all over the room began vibrating. Kay Bailey Hutchison was announcing once and for all that this would be her last term in the U.S. Senate.

A couple of days earlier, Speaker Joe Straus was re-elected to run the Texas House, surviving a harrowing internal challenge stoked by professionals and volunteers outside the Capitol.

Gov. Rick Perry was wrapping up a national book tour, a victory lap of sorts after his commanding November victory over Democrat Bill White, a former Houston mayor. Perry’s book Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington positioned him nicely to head the Republican Governors Association and to be a leader of the conservative resistance to the Obama administration.

Now look. Dewhurst is probably running for the U.S. Senate and has said he’ll talk about his political plans later this month. Straus is still mired in the intramural wars of the Texas House, trying to keep the peace in a body that’s remarkably more conservative than the one that first elevated him to leadership. And Perry is riding a national wave, or a bubble, that could take him into the race for president or vice president.

And the stories of how they got here tell the story of the regular legislative session that ended last week, and of the special session going on right now.

Dewhurst is watching his flank. Statewide positions in Texas don’t open up all that often. He’s richer and better known than the other potential candidates and worked to keep his political standing during the session. One win: The new state budget cuts spending but isn’t as harsh as the one approved by the House. Dewhurst and the state Senate were being called the liberals in the mix — those outside groups again — until he threw the Democrats overboard and made it a partisan exercise. The Senate got much of what it wanted, and Dewhurst wasn’t tagged with appeasing the Democrats. One trouble spot: Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, blamed Dewhurst for killing an attempt to criminally punish intrusive searches at airports. The lieutenant governor has asked Perry to add that to the special-session agenda so he could get a bill.

Two years ago, Republicans had a 76-74 majority in the Texas House, and the speaker’s job was to balance each side’s wins against the other. Now, with a 101-49 Republican majority, his job has been to make what is, by the numbers, an unfair fight seem like a fair one. For Democrats, he personifies a crushing Republican majority and seems heavy-handed. Some of his fellow Republicans, however, think he showed too much restraint on issues like attacking illegal immigration. They say he should have done more to defang the Democrats who, with no political or numerical clout, have made inefficiency an art form with clever and relentless manipulations of the parliamentary rules used to govern debate. Republicans are flexing the rules, too, and the House has become a deeply partisan place characterized by petty, legalistic debates. The outside grind hasn’t stopped: The groups that vexed Straus at the start are circulating letters asking members not to pledge their future support to him.

Perry, on the other hand, has mostly leashed the outsiders, using them to bend lawmakers toward his goals. Don’t want lawmakers to spend the Rainy Day Fund to minimize cuts in state programs? Catching flak for defending Amazon for not paying state sales taxes? Pushing to make local schools use their financial reserves to cover cuts in state financing? The outsiders backed the governor on almost everything. They serve as an amplifier, boosting his standing with conservatives inside and outside the state.

The three share a notable failure, evidenced by the Legislature’s continued presence in Austin. They conspired openly at the beginning of the session to make sure nothing important drowned in the Democrats’ molasses machine. That happened two years ago, killing bills and prompting furious Republicans to swear they’d never let it happen again.

But it did. Congressional redistricting didn’t get done. An insurance reform bill stalled because of a trial lawyer-tort reformer standoff. And a key part of the budget wasn’t scheduled for debate until the final hours before an end-of-session deadline.

Dewhurst would like to get on with his political plans. So, for that matter, would the governor. The speaker wants legislators to go home soon, and who can blame him?

It was obvious at the start.

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