House Republicans to caucus on speaker rules

Texas House Republicans will meet early Wednesday to discuss whether to require members of their caucus to choose a speaker candidate — then stand behind their pick when the vote goes to the full House in January 2019.  

Speaker Straus hits the gavel as members vote no on an amendment on Senate Bill 1, the property tax bill, on August 12, 2017.

Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Texas House Republicans will meet early Wednesday to discuss procedures for electing a speaker, a move that opponents of current Speaker Joe Straus have heralded as a victory.

At issue: whether to require members of the GOP caucus to choose a candidate then stand behind their pick when the speaker vote goes to the full House in January 2019.

House Republican Chairman Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, called the meeting after receiving a letter requesting it from the 12 members of the Texas Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers who launched near daily attacks on House leadership during the 2017 regular session. Two other Republicans — Cole Hefner, R- Mount Pleasant, and Scott Sanford, R- McKinney — also signed the letter.

“A Republican Speaker of the House should first win the confidence of a majority of his or her fellow Republicans," the letter stated, asking Parker to set a meeting to discuss the procedures for picking a nominee according to the state party platform.

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The platform calls for members to caucus before each session to pick a candidate for speaker by secret ballot and “vote as a unified body” when the time comes. On Friday, the party put out a statement thanking members "for taking steps toward enacting another plank of the [Republican Party of Texas] platform." 

No official action can come out of Wednesday's private caucus meeting, as any proposed changes to caucus bylaws require at least 15 days' notice.

Initially scheduled for Thursday, Parker moved the meeting up a day following outcry from conservative activists, who accused him of picking the day after the special session closed so that fewer members would attend.

Under caucus bylaws, a quorum for such a meeting requires half the membership plus one. That number is 49 for the current House Republican Caucus. Conservative activists had been keeping track of which members had planned to attend the meeting when it was scheduled for Thursday. By Monday evening, they had tallied 56 lawmakers who intended to show up — enough to ensure the meeting goes forward.

The meeting could unfold with more tension than was expected when it was first called. The House abruptly closed out the special session Tuesday evening, a day earlier than expected, ending further negotiation on a key property tax bill and drawing vocal opposition from some Freedom Caucus members.

But even if Freedom Caucus members succeed in changing the process — which won’t happen Wednesday — it’s unclear whether that would lead to someone new wielding the gavel.

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Straus, who announced he’d run for another term as speaker during the last few days of the regular session in May, has easily staved off previous attempts to unseat him. Though a frequent target of conservative activists, the San Antonio Republican had no challenger for the chamber’s top post during the current legislative session. In 2015, his opponent, freshman state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, drew only 19 votes. In 2013, his opponent, then-state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, withdrew his bid on the first day of session.

And in 2011, he defeated state Rep. Ken Paxton, a McKinney Republican who is now Texas Attorney General, in a 132-15 vote. He did that after winning the nomination of the House Republican Caucus first.

“I don’t think any Republican Caucus meeting that I’ve been to has had an underlying theme of hurting Joe. To the best of my knowledge, whether it’s 2011,  2013, 2015 or 2017, in some form or fashion he has had the majority of the Republican Caucus,” state Rep. James White said.

The Hillister Republican voted against Straus during his first session in 2011 but has supported him since, saying that he thought the Legislature had only grown more conservative.

“I would say that whoever is the speaker is a function of the members, and I just look at the four sessions I’ve been in and four sessions prior,” he said, “and they are strikingly more conservative than the four sessions prior.”

State Rep. Kevin Roberts, R-Houston, said Tuesday morning — when the meeting was still set for Thursday — that he has attended every caucus gathering, and the upcoming one would not be any different. He added that he was not expecting anything "earth-shattering," noting that any vote to change the caucus rules requires 15 days' notice. 

As for Straus' future, Roberts emphasized he was keeping an open mind. 

"Last I heard, he's the only one that's filed to run," Roberts said, speaking at a Texas Tribune event. "As I've said for a million years, I will look at all the available options of those who are running and I will make the best decision of the most conservative, viable candidate that allows me to represent my district."

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Other House Republicans approached on Tuesday declined to comment, indicating they believed the meeting was largely for show.

While the Freedom Caucus includes many longtime Straus critics, its members emphasized that the purpose of the Wednesday meeting is not the five-term speaker. 

"It's not about a person or a personality. It's just about the process," said state Rep. Matt Krause, a member of the Freedom Caucus from Fort Worth. "I think the process is important enough, no matter who's the speaker, that we start following it."