Texas House GOP tensions come to a head with 'Mother's Day Massacre'

By Patrick Svitek

For months, tensions have been simmering between some of the Texas House's most conservative members and their fellow Republicans in leadership.

That conservative bloc, newly organized this legislative session as the 12-member Freedom Caucus, have accumulated a long list of complaints. Inaction on their priorities. Selective enforcement of rules. Alleged retaliation.

On Thursday night, the tensions boiled over. Angry over what they described as "petty personal politics," members of the Freedom Caucus announced a plan to use a procedural maneuver to kill more than 100 bills — a "Mother's Day Massacre" they carried out Friday morning.

It was a remarkable act of rebellion, even for a chamber that is not unfamiliar with intra-party pushback. As lawmakers prepared to head home Friday, some were still processing the twist, which came with just over two weeks before the Legislature's final curtain known as sine die.

"At this time in session, people always lose their cool," said state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Republican from Humble who chairs the Public Education Committee. "Last night was the most egregious I’ve ever seen. Unbelievably disappointing."

"They feel like they’ve been disrespected," Huberty said of Freedom Caucus members, "but unfortunately ... respect works both ways.”  

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was already looking beyond the fracas. He "hopes everyone has a good Mother's Day Weekend and returns to Austin ready to work together on solving the state's challenges, which is what the vast majority of members want to do," the speaker's spokesman, Jason Embry, said in a statement.

Freedom Caucus members also used Thursday night to derail legislation ahead of a midnight deadline to pass the House.

As the clock ticked — and Freedom Caucus members used tactic after tactic to stall — other lawmakers watched as the chances dimmed for their bills to pass. State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, delivered a tearful speech begging the chamber to hurry up so it could get to a bill on experimental stem cell treatment that could benefit his wife, who suffered a spinal cord injury.

The legislation ultimately passed with minutes to spare.

The chamber never got to Huberty's House Bill 3476, which would have required school districts to ensure student athletes got an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram before playing sports. He said he had been working on it for eight years, inspired by the death of a friend's son due to sudden cardiac arrest after committing to play football at Tarleton State University. Huberty said he called his friend after midnight to apologize for the bill's demise.

As the dust settled Friday afternoon, Freedom Caucus members said they were not exactly pleased with how the past 24 hours unraveled. But they also were not ready to apologize.

"When you give people nothing, they have nothing to lose and they’re going to fight for their constituents and if they can’t do it within the system, they’re going to do without the system," said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving.

To members outside the GOP scrum, what happened Thursday night has generated new questions about the stability of the chamber. State Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who had more bills die than any other lawmaker, said the episode showed there is a "mutiny essentially within the Republican Party and the Republican caucus."

"I can appreciate their fight," Blanco said of Freedom Caucus members. "I don’t believe that their scorched-earth approach is the right approach, but they made their point by killing the calendar, and I think there’s a failure in leadership and I think the way they took over the floor yesterday is a demonstration of a fractured GOP."

Intra-party divisions in the House are nothing new. Since his ascension to the speakership in 2009, Straus and his allies have been dogged by a relatively small but vocal group of detractors from within his own party who believe he is insufficiently conservative and too deferential to Democrats.

Unlike in the lead-up to the past few sessions, conservative lawmakers in January did not put up their own candidate to challenge Straus for speaker this year. When the House gaveled in for the 85th legislative session, Straus was unanimously elected speaker by all 150 members.

"Last session they were supposedly penalized because of their speaker vote, so this session they attempted to show a unified front" by instead banding together as the Freedom Caucus, said Dana Hodges, a conservative activist who serves as state director of Concerned Women of America for Texas.

The caucus formally launched a little over a month into session. Since then, it's gotten perhaps the most attention for its role in the House debate over Senate Bill 4, the ban on so-called "sanctuary cities." Schaefer successfully amended the bill to allow police to ask the immigration status of anyone detained, not just those arrested — the most controversial provision of the legislation when Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law earlier this month.

The caucus' members have not shied away from drawing attention to what Rinaldi described as a "dictatorial" leadership that has become not unlike the regime it supplanted in 2009. Often posted at the back mic, its members decry House inaction on a range of issues, from anti-abortion measures to the so-called "bathroom bill" that passed the Senate months ago but remains stalled in the lower chamber.

The Freedom Caucus includes only 12 out of 95 House Republicans, but its members say their efforts have garnered support this session — often out of public view — from more than just the usual rabble-rousers.

"I think there’s some significant discontent inside the Republican caucus right now with what has happened with policy this session, and so because of that, I think there are a significant number of our Republicans colleagues who are very sympathetic to what we’ve been doing and what we’ve been dealing with," said state Rep. Matt Schaefer, the Tyler Republican who chairs the caucus. "And a lot of times they vote with us."


Huberty and others in House leadership reject the notion the Freedom Caucus sentiment is spreading. "I haven't heard any of that," Huberty said, shaking his head.

The Freedom Caucus does not plan to let up, already setting its sights on adding what Schaefer called a "strong religious liberty amendment" to a sunset bill that is scheduled to hit the floor Monday. Members are also "quite determined not to go home without a policy victory" on the bathroom issue, Schaefer said, suggesting a special session may be necessary.

Other members are watching closely to see how House leaders navigate a session home stretch marred by the bill-killing spree.

"That’s the big question: What does Republican leadership do moving forward now that several members’ — Democrats and Republicans — bills were killed?" Blanco said. "What are their next steps and how do they approach the important legislation that’s coming down the line?”

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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