Majority of incoming Texas House Republicans calls for end to Democratic committee chairs, narrowing path for Phelan

Majority of incoming Texas House Republicans calls for end to Democratic committee chairs, narrowing path for Phelan
1 month 2 weeks 3 days ago Saturday, June 01 2024 Jun 1, 2024 June 01, 2024 9:50 AM June 01, 2024 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, gavels the House into session on the House floor during session at the state Capitol in Austin on April 11, 2023. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

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A group of 46 Republican House members and nominees pledged Friday to only back a speaker next session who commits to ending the tradition of appointing Democratic committee chairs — a move that narrows the path to the gavel for House Speaker Dade Phelan, who has vowed to continue the longstanding practice.

To be elected speaker, a House member must secure 76 votes, a majority of the 150-seat chamber. Democrats control 64 seats, meaning a speaker hopeful could theoretically win with full Democratic support and around a dozen of the 86 Republicans. To prevent this scenario, Phelan’s rivals have called for speaker candidates to reach a majority by only soliciting GOP support.

That was already a remote possibility for Phelan, a Beaumont Republican who has been a lightning rod for the GOP’s ultraconservative wing since he backed the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton last spring. The House is set to include more than 20 GOP members next session who have explicitly vowed to oppose Phelan.

But Phelan still hoped to build a winning coalition that included a majority of House Republicans, even if he also leaned on some Democratic support. With Friday’s pledges, Phelan can now secure a GOP majority only by abandoning one of the most powerful olive branches available to secure Democratic backing.

Former GOP state lawmaker Ron Simmons argued on social media that the repudiation of Democratic chairs by a majority of House Republicans “opens up for the real possibility of a liberal Republican to gather 10-15 similar R’s and all the D’s and be the Speaker” — the very scenario Phelan’s critics are hoping to forestall. Some anti-Phelan House members and nominees acknowledged the risk but said it would be worth it to expose the GOP defectors and oust them in the primaries in another two years.

“We're here for it,” Mitch Little, an attorney and House GOP nominee, responded to Simmons. “That will be another 10-15 Republicans back in the workforce, stimulating the economy in 2026.”

The anti-Democratic chair pledges were first reported by The Texan. A spokesperson for Phelan did not respond to a request for comment.

Hardline conservatives have been trying to stave off bipartisan speaker coalitions ever since 2009, when former GOP Speaker Joe Straus won the gavel with a bloc of around a dozen Republicans and most Democrats in the House. Straus went on to serve five terms as speaker, often serving as a moderating force against the more conservative Senate.

Another House Republican nominee, Brent Money, argued that GOP speakers have relied on Democratic support ever since — and that putting members on record will only make it harder to win the gavel through the usual route of backroom talks and deal-making.

“Without this commitment [to oppose Democratic chairs] from a majority of the Republican caucus, the scenario you described is a certainty, as it has been since 2009,” Money said to Simmons. “The difference is that if they run that play this time, it will be on the floor in the light of day instead of under the cloak of darkness.”

Phelan’s allies have bristled at comparisons to Straus’ coalition. The Beaumont Republican, who took over as speaker in 2021, first announced he had the votes to become speaker in late 2020 with a group of 51 Republicans — including himself — and 32 Democrats. Ahead of last year’s legislative session, in a closed-door meeting where Republicans picked who they would nominate for speaker, Phelan won 78 GOP votes, with only six defections.

The debate over Democratic chairs has intensified over the last year or so, becoming a major point of contention for Phelan’s critics and emerging as a surprisingly prominent issue in the speaker’s own primary, which he narrowly won earlier this week. Last February, already facing a push from the right to reduce Democratic influence in the GOP-led chamber, Phelan selected Democrats to chair eight of the 34 standing committees, down from the 13 he appointed at the start of the prior legislative session.

He has kept Republicans in control of the most coveted and powerful committees, like those that control spending and taxes.

Phelan has continued to defend the practice, telling Spectrum News in March that it made the Texas Legislature “unique, because we have a bipartisan relationship here.”

“This has been going on for decades and decades and decades,” Phelan said. “It keeps us from being like Washington, D.C., where everything shuts down. We don’t want the chaos that is in Washington, D.C. We want to get things done for the folks here in Texas.”

Some critics of the tradition have struggled to define specific GOP policies blocked by Democratic chairs, though they insist the positions have been used to create roadblocks in recent sessions.

State Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, announced this week she was challenging Phelan for speaker, announcing her bid in a letter to fellow Republicans in which she condemned the speaker’s vow to “continue that power sharing practice over the objections of a large faction of members and an even larger, disapproving Republican party.”

“Last session I gave too much bene?t of the doubt to leadership’s power sharing with Democrats and then spent many frustrating hours trying to overcome the obstacles created by their empowering minority members at the expense of the majority,” Slawson wrote.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of Phelan’s main political rivals, praised the letter of anti-Democratic chair pledges and said it meant the only way Phelan could only be reelected “is by a handful of a small minority of Republicans and a huge majority of Democrats.”

“That would be a kick in the teeth to Texans who elected an overwhelming Republican House majority,” Patrick posted on social media.

Before the letter was released Friday, Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said that if Phelan “is forced to form an explicit coalition with Democrats to retain his speakership,” that could lead to less conservative policy-making — the opposite of what his hard right enemies want.

“Ironically for the state’s most conservative Republicans, if Phelan returns as speaker in 2025 by winning a majority vote in the Republican Caucus and without the overt need to broker a deal with Democrats, he’d end up with more flexibility to pass priority conservative legislation,” Jones wrote in the Houston Chronicle.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/31/house-speaker-democratic-chairs-dade-phelan/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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