Texas House Republicans agreed Friday to change their rules for selecting the next house speaker, potentially paving the way for a more conservative leader of the chamber in 2019.
In a unanimous vote — most of the caucus' 95 members were present — the caucus decided to meet next December and work to rally around a speaker candidate before going to the full floor, according to lawmakers who emerged from a closed-door caucus meeting Friday afternoon. The caucus will hold additional rounds of voting if a speaker contender does not win two-thirds support on the first ballot.
The decision is in line with a proposal the full caucus received last month from a working group looking into the possibility of a bylaws change on the issue. One of the questions that proposal left open — whether the caucus speaker vote should be open ballot or secret ballot — was settled Friday, with legislators agreeing to the latter.
The bylaws change has no enforcement mechanism, meaning that there will be no formal consequences for members who vote on the floor for a speaker candidate other than the caucus choice. State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he was not too concerned about that after seeing the unity that the caucus displayed Friday.
"I just believe that they will," Simmons told reporters, referring to GOP members sticking together on the floor. "But there’s no guarantee. Everybody’s their own person. They do what they think is right. I just believe that they will."
The vote comes weeks after House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, made the bombshell announcement that he will not run for re-election next year. At the time, state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, had already announced he was running for speaker for the next legislative session. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced a bid shortly after Straus' retirement news. Several more lawmakers are expected to enter the race ahead of the 2019 session.
The process leading up to Friday's vote was set in motion earlier this year, when the conservative House Freedom Caucus pushed for a meeting of the chamber's full GOP caucus to start the conversation about the proposal. That discussion continued into the GOP caucus' retreat in September, when it agreed to assemble a working group to look into the issue.
“From the Freedom Caucus perspective, this is a huge win, but it’s a huge win for the whole Republican caucus," state Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler, who chairs the Freedom Caucus, told reporters after the meeting. "I think we knocked the first domino, but the credit goes to a lot of other members who helped the process along."
In addition to the Freedom Caucus, the Republican Party of Texas and its chairman, James Dickey, have also actively pushed the proposal, which meshes with a plank in the party platform. The party is asking candidates to sign a form pledging to support the caucus' eventual nominee for speaker — a move that has drawn an inquiry with the Texas Ethics Commission about whether it amounts to legislative "bribery."
Appearing at an unrelated event earlier Friday afternoon in Austin, Straus declined to weigh in on the proposal, saying he's "not in the advice business" when it comes to selecting a speaker during a session in which he will not be a member. But Straus did raise doubts about whether the caucus would stick together on the floor if they managed to settle on a speaker candidate ahead of time.
"I’m not sure that anything can be binding, but it sounds like the state party chairman and others are really kind of whipping this thing up, but I would think the wiser approach would be to change the state Constitution," Straus told reporters after addressing the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. "You can’t bind somebody to vote for a speaker candidate on the floor, so ... whatever."