AUSTIN, Texas — A proposal to ban transgender people from using the bathroom or locker room of their choice has sparked a legislative hostage crisis among Texas Republicans, exposing an ongoing rift between populists who align themselves with President Trump and more traditional, business-oriented conservatives.
Lawmakers will convene Tuesday for a special session to free the hostages — a handful of state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, that must be reauthorized by the legislature — and to consider about 20 items on an agenda that reads like a conservative's Christmas list. The agenda, which under Texas law is set by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), includes proposals restricting abortions, targeting public-sector unions and expanding school choice.
It also includes a version of Senate Bill 6, a measure to bar transgender people from the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice, similar to a controversial North Carolina bill passed last year.
That bill is a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), an arch conservative who runs the state Senate and who served as Trump’s Texas campaign chairman.
But the state House, led by Speaker Joe Straus (R), refused to pass the bathroom bill during the chamber’s regular session, amid opposition from some of the state’s largest employers, sports leagues and civil rights groups. Straus endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.
The special session became necessary when the state House and Senate could not agree on what is usually rubber-stamp legislation, reauthorizing several state boards and commissions that come up for votes every 12 years. Five agencies have yet to win approval: The Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors, and boards that oversee social workers, family therapists, psychologists and professional counselors.
If the reauthorizations, known as “sunset” bills, don’t win approval, those agencies would shut their doors. In the case of the state medical board, that would mean no oversight for doctors — or even those who pose as doctors — practicing medicine in Texas.
Abbott has made passage of the sunset bills the first priority in the special session, an effort to clear must-pass legislation that could otherwise be used as a bargaining chip. After those bills pass, the Senate and House will take up the other items on Abbott’s agenda.
Abbott said he didn’t relish a special session, but that the sunset bills forced him to call legislators back to Austin in the middle of the sweltering summer.
“We were put in a sense of necessity, so my thought process was, if this situation is going to be handed to me, I'm going to lay out an agenda of items that I really want to see accomplished in the state of Texas,” Abbott said.
The remainder of Abbott’s agenda is where the fireworks will begin: Patrick is furious that his top priority, the so-called bathroom bill, has been held up, and he has increasingly leveled harsh attacks against Straus — attacks that are all the more surprising because the two men represent the same party.
“I’m not going to let a big-government, moderate-to-liberal speaker undermine our part or undermine solid conservative principles that have made Texas a leader for the last 10-plus years,” Patrick said of Straus in an interview. “He’s totally out of touch with the Republican Party of Texas.”
Straus took a more measured tone. In an interview in his office just off the state House floor, Straus said he and Patrick had worked together on legislation in the past. But he said he was surprised that Patrick used the sunset legislation to force votes on his top priorities.
“He seems to lately be kind of unusually distant in his comments,” Straus said of Patrick. “You can’t take it personally, and I don’t, and we’ve found common ground on a number of issues in the past.”
Straus said he did not believe Senate Bill 6 — which Patrick calls a privacy bill — would win the votes necessary to pass the state House, where it died in the regular session.
Several major state employers, organized by the Texas Association of Business, held a press conference at the capitol Monday to reiterate their opposition, and to issue veiled threats about economic activity the state stands to lose if the bill passes.
“You have to really ask yourself, where are you going to grow?” Phil Gilbert, the global head of design at IBM, said at the press conference. Gilbert said hundreds of thousands of his employees travel to company meetings, and that meetings once scheduled for Dallas might move elsewhere.
“We have choices about where those meetings can go.”
Straus said the business community had finally mobilized, after taking a more hands-off approach during the regular session.
“I believe that most of the members of the House are not looking to harm the Texas economy,” Straus said. “I’m encouraged by the stronger support for keeping Texas a pro-business, job-creating state from the business community. They are standing up and speaking out much louder than they did during the regular session, which I find encouraging.”
Abbott spent much of the legislative session trying to make peace between Straus and Patrick, shuttling between their offices and hosting them in his.
“I was the traditional man in the middle in this situation,” Abbott said of the diplomacy he conducted toward the end of the regular session. “I was able to work with both the House and the Senate to try to get bills passed, deals cut, and we succeeded in some regards. Ultimately, we failed on some issues.”
Abbott, who said last Friday he would seek a second term in 2018, does not yet face any serious Democratic challengers. But many observers see the agenda Abbott set as a deliberate effort to align himself with Patrick.
Patrick beat his predecessor in a Republican primary, and while the lieutenant governor has said he won’t run for governor in 2018, Abbott has moved to allow as little distance as possible between the two.
“They have become very closely aligned,” Straus said of Patrick and Abbott. “I think the governor has done the job that I think he was looking to do in keeping them close.”
In an interview, Abbott said he is close to Patrick — and not as close to Straus, though Abbott said they maintain a good relationship.
Patrick formally endorsed Abbott earlier this year.
“Some people want to try to stir the pot between the governor and I,” Patrick said. “I support Greg Abbott, and I support Greg Abbott to this day.”
Abbott, a former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general, said addressing bathroom access for transgender students in particular is necessary because of ongoing and future litigation over Title IX.
“We are in a legal quagmire right now as it concerns Title IX. It’s not just Texas, but other states are going to have to work through this,” Abbott said. “There’s not an easy out here. There are more complex issues that are going to have to be addressed, not just by Texas, but by all states.”
Abbott’s critics say the governor has been too hands-off by failing to enforce a peace between Patrick and Straus and by allowing them to set the agenda. The Texas Constitution gives the governor few concrete powers, but Abbott has done less than his predecessors to claim the bully pulpit, these critics say.
“You always knew where [former Gov.] Rick Perry was coming from,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D). “I don’t think anybody in the dome knows where Greg Abbott is coming from.”
Even Straus took a veiled shot at Abbott, saying “I welcome his stepped-up engagement during the special session.”