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Tensions mount between Dan Patrick and the Texas House

Less than two months into the session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been hardly masking his irritation with a lower chamber that has shown little appetite for some of his priorities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pauses while conducting resolutions in the Senate Chamber on Feb. 7, 2017.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated a milestone Wednesday: His Senate had acted on all four of Gov. Greg Abbott's emergency items with many more days to go in the 85th legislative session.

"It's the earliest ever that anyone knows of that either body ... has already passed all the emergency items," Patrick said in a radio interview. Abbott's top priorities are "out and done" in the Senate, Patrick boasted  a not-so-subtle contrast with the Texas House, which tackled its first emergency item this week. 

It's not the only bone Patrick has to pick with the House these days. As its resistance to some of his top priorities has come into focus in recent weeks, the lieutenant governor has become increasingly vocal about the tension between the two chambers.

"The brow-beating — I think the volume's up a lot higher than we've seen in the past," said state Rep. Lyle Larson, an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, a fellow San Antonio Republican. "Using a brow-beating approach in governing never bodes well for anybody."

In recent media appearances, Patrick has stopped short of directly criticizing the House. But he has hardly concealed his irritation with a chamber that has shown little appetite for some of the issues he cares most about. The latest exhibit came Tuesday, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, bluntly stated that Patrick's school voucher bill will be dead on arrival in the lower chamber. 

"They've said they're against school choice, which is a high priority," Patrick said in a radio interview on Monday. "We're going to pass the Texas Privacy Act, which keeps men out of bathrooms and stops boys and girls from showering together in high schools. The House has said they're not interested in that bill. I don't know where they are on property tax relief, but ... conservatives in the Senate have made a pledge that we're going to get our job done."

"What I always ask for is, just bring a bill to the floor," Patrick added. "We have 94 out of 150 ... House members [who] are Republicans. You need 76 to pass a bill. I believe there will be 76 out of 94 Republicans, if given a vote, on the House floor to pass all the legislation that we're going to pass."

The House has not responded in kind to most of Patrick's public volleys, which date back to his panning of the lower chamber's budget proposal in January — "I can't explain the House budget" — and demand on the Capitol steps that same month that the House give school choice a vote this session. "It's easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it," he said, joining Abbott at a school choice rally.

Then there is Patrick's highest-profile priority, the so-called bathroom bill that would require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their "biological sex" in public schools, government buildings and public universities. Straus made clear early in the session that he has serious concerns with the legislation, which is set for a committee hearing Tuesday amid mounting opposition from the business community.

"The speaker said it's not important to him," Patrick said in an appearance Sunday on Dallas TV. "Well, it's important to the voters." 

For argument's sake, there are some structural differences that allow the Senate to get to work faster than the House. Patrick has acknowledged as much in some recent interviews, while touting the cohesion in his chamber, which this session added even more Republican members cut from Patrick's ideological cloth. 

"You never know what the real drill is there," Patrick said of the House in Monday's radio interview, discussing the 150-member lower chamber. "We're a tight group in the Senate — 31 of us. We work together pretty well."

Those familiar with House leadership say Patrick's recent comments probably aren't helping him make his case across the hall. If anything, they're solidifying the House's resolve to chart its own path this session.

"With all due respect, I think they could care less," said former state Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican close to Straus. "Sitting there pounding your chest and pointing your fingers and trying to kick sand in someone's face — that's pretty childish to me."

Looming in the background of these debates is Abbott, who has largely stayed out of the crossfire at the Capitol since his State of the State address in January. The biggest development since then has been his criticism of the NFL for its opposition to the bathroom bill, a potential sign that Abbott is moving toward siding with Patrick after months on the sidelines. Abbott still has not taken a position in a debate that has been going on since early last summer.

Of course, not all the brow-beating on legislative progress is coming from Patrick. Abbott used his State of the State speech to dish out some tough love for legislators on funding for his pre-Kindergarten initiative, telling them to "do it right or don't do it at all." Larson called parts of the speech "very demeaning, very condescending." 

Yet just under two months into the session, most of the spotlight remains on the Patrick agenda and its hurdles in the House.

To Straus' critics on the right, the House's work so far reeks of an effort to run out the clock before the chamber is forced to take up legislation that could lead to politically difficult votes. Straus' antagonists at the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans have taken to calling it "Operation Slowdown," a reference to a Democratic state representative's remarks in November assuring a crowd that the lower chamber would not move as quickly on some divisive proposals originating in the Senate.

JoAnn Fleming, a Tea Party leader from East Texas, called it the "same old drill over in the House" but noted one difference this session: No one in the House challenged Straus for speaker or voted against his speakership. When the session began in January, he won unanimous support for a record-tying fifth term as speaker.

That has ratcheted up Fleming's expectations for conservative lawmakers.

"If you can’t get your bills through committee, you need to get out on the steps and call names," said Fleming, who chaired Patrick's now-defunct Grassroots Advisory Council last session and remains in touch with the lieutenant governor. "Any slow-walking that goes on over there in the House — if you’re not calling it out, then you’re part of the problem."

Yet even Patrick's outspokenness has its limits. As radio host Chris Salcedo railed against the House's "foot-dragging" and called Straus an "obstructionist" in the Monday interview, acknowledging Patrick would never use such words himself, the lieutenant governor interjected.

"No, no," Patrick said. "Look, Chris, I'm not going to get into a direct fight at this time with the House."

Read more:

  • House Public Education Chair Dan Huberty spawned a backlash from school choice activists after his remarks in opposition to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's voucher push.
  • Both chambers have unanimously passed legislation aimed at reforming the state's troubled child welfare system.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Texas Legislature