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Abbott "shuttle diplomacy" tested as Straus, Patrick reached impasse

A review of Gov. Greg Abbott's schedule during May provides a glimpse into the final stretch of the legislative session, where the governor tried in vain to bring together lawmakers to avoid a special session.

Gov. Greg Abbott looks on as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (left) and House Speaker Joe Straus shake hands at the Capitol on May 27, 2017. 

In recent weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott has spoken emphatically of his efforts to bring together lawmakers to avoid a special session — an ultimately unsuccessful mission.

"The conversations were almost constant," Abbott recalled in a radio interview Thursday. "For at least the last two, maybe three or four weeks of the session, for pretty much the entirety of the month of May, I was doing shuttle diplomacy between both the House and Senate leaders to cut a deal to get this done." 

A review of Abbott's schedule during May provides a more nuanced portrait of that final stretch, which was consumed by sharp divisions between the House and Senate. Abbott spent most of the first three weeks of May regularly holding meetings with legislative leaders, including as many as eight times in one day. But during the final week of the session, as negotiations between the chambers collapsed and the meetings with Abbott all but stopped, save for a last-minute huddle with a pair of House lieutenants on the Friday before lawmakers closed out the session on May 29. 

The drop-off in meetings came as Abbott continued to hold out hope, at least publicly, that lawmakers could forge a compromise to stave off a special session. That never happened, and now Abbott is calling them back for an overtime round starting July 18.

Abbott's office did not provide an explanation for the drop-off in meetings but maintained Abbott had worked with House and Senate leaders before and during the session to reach compromises on a number of issues. "Whether in-person meetings or phone calls with members, Gov. Abbott was heavily involved in shuttle diplomacy between the chambers throughout the legislative session," Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement.

Leaders at odds

Abbott's schedule for the session, obtained through public information requests, shows not only the end-of-session scramble to strike a deal but also how communications among the state's top three leaders splintered in those final weeks.

The "Big Three" — Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus — left behind their traditional weekly breakfasts in April, according to Abbott's schedule. After regularly meeting every Wednesday morning in February and March, the three only held the so-called leadership breakfasts twice in April before discontinuing them altogether in May. In that final month, Abbott opted for one-on-one meetings or calls with Patrick and Straus — four with the lieutenant governor and three with the speaker.

Tensions among the three leaders were on full display during the home stretch of the regular session — especially between Patrick and Straus, whose chambers held dueling news conference twice in three days. Since the end of the session, however, Abbott has also voiced some displeasure with Straus, saying Thursday, for example, the speaker's "priorities differed from the deals that we were trying to broker at the end of the session."

In a statement to The Texas Tribune, Straus spokesman Jason Embry highlighted the chamber's efforts during the regular session to address two Abbott priorities that are now on the special session call: property tax relief and assistance for special-needs students.

"Just like the members of the Texas House, Speaker Straus is focused on ways to put the state's best interest first, and the special session will be no different," Straus spokesman Jason Embry said in a statement. "House proceedings and votes are a matter of public record. Those who engaged in the process know that the House passed all five of the Governor's emergency items."

Abbott's early visits

In the first half of the 140-day session that started in January, much of Abbott's formal interactions with lawmakers came through lunches he organized for groups of representatives and senators — he had six in February and three in March. Yet there were also a number of one-on-one meetings and calls with lawmakers, including one that made headlines: On the evening of March 15, Abbott paid a visit to the Senate's chief budget writer, state Sen. Jane Nelson, after her Finance Committee had zeroed out funding for Abbott's pre-K program in the budget. Soon after, some of that funding was restored. 

But as the weeks passed, leaders in the House and Senate appeared increasingly at an impasse on high-profile measures to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans and set new thresholds for when cities and counties must get voter approval for their property tax rates. As the session entered May, its final month, speculation grew rampant that Abbott would have to call a summer special session as lawmakers seemed likely to leave those two issues, and others, unresolved.

On the bathroom issue, Abbott was mostly silent until speaking favorably in April about House Bill 2899, a proposal from state Rep. Ron Simmons, would nix existing municipal and school districts’ trans-inclusive bathroom policies and prevent locals from enacting any new policies.

Abbott had met with Simmons a number of times throughout the session, including on May 8, hours before HB 2899 fell victim to a bill-killing deadline. 

"I think even on May 8, we felt there were still things that could be done to get at least a school version of HB 2899 done," said Simmons, who was kept in the dark two weeks later when House leadership sought to deal with the issue by devising a narrower amendment to a different bill. (It passed but did not please Patrick.)

A busy day

Abbott's busiest day appeared to come on May 19 when, over the course of seven meetings and one call, he was in touch with Straus, Patrick and two other key players: state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the Angleton Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, the North Richland Hills Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee. 

The flurry of meetings came amid a high-pressure moment in the session. Two days earlier, Patrick had publicly threatened to hold a must-pass bill hostage in order to force Abbott to call a special session. The House had also just delayed a vote on Senate Bill 2, the leading bill addressing the property tax issue that both Abbott and Patrick had identified as a priority.

"Obviously, he wanted to see us — everybody — be successful and so was very involved in trying to bring that to fruition," Hancock said. "He wanted to make sure that he had a good understanding of each body, and I think he had that." 

As for why a deal was unsuccessful, added Hancock, a former House member: "We're just different bodies. I've served in both, and they just operate differently."

While Hancock often represented the Senate in those negotiations, Bonnen emerged as the House's top emissary to Abbott in that final month, meeting with the governor 10 times — six of them one-on-one. Bonnen did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

It was Bonnen and another Straus lieutenant, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who made up Abbott's last meeting with lawmakers before the end of the session at noon on Friday, May 26. Hours later, any chance of a deal appeared to blow up when Straus held a news conference announcing his chamber would no longer negotiate on the bathroom issue. Patrick countered with his own news conference, where he insisted Straus "is the one causing the special session." 

While Abbott's meetings with lawmakers had mostly ended during the last week of session, he continued to receive outside pressure regarding the bathroom bill. On the evening of May 25, Abbott spoke by phone with Apple CEO Tim Cook. The governor's office declined to comment on the topic of the call, but it came two days before Cook and other top tech executives sent Abbott a letter urging him to oppose discriminatory legislation.

"Such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business," the letter read.

The governor was ultimately unswayed. When he announced Tuesday that he would be calling a special session to begin on July 18, he made clear that bathroom regulations would be part of the session's agenda.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas Legislature