The Republicans involved in redistricting spent much of yesterday trying to come to an agreement on how to divvy up West Texas, and while it appears they have a plan for Midland and Lubbock, I can't tell if they're really close to an actual deal or are just projecting confidence, as the various press reports are a bit muddled.
The Chron's headline says GOP strikes Midland deal in remap war, but the story sounds a lot less firm than the header does.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Monday senators have agreed to break a redistricting stalemate by giving House Speaker Tom Craddick a new congressional district in his hometown of Midland.
How to draw West Texas congressional districts had been a major impasse to Republican redistricting plans. Dewhurst said the agreement in principle was struck during high-level negotiations in Gov. Rick Perry's Capitol office.
"It's very, very clear that we're overdue in coming to an agreement on a fair redistricting map," Dewhurst said.
But the devil is in the details. And optimism seemed held together by gossamer threads in the Sam Houston conference room where negotiations were taking place privately around folding tables and a redistricting computer.
While the House and Senate congressional maps differ in almost all parts of Texas, the sticking point among Republicans is West Texas.
Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, lead House negotiator, said he thought progress is being made toward meeting the legislative leadership's goal of having an agreement by Wednesday.
But Sen. Robert Duncan,R-Lubbock, said problems remained in creating a Midland district that did not pit freshman U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer,R-Lubbock, against veteran U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm,D-Abilene, in the same congressional district.
"They're not moving in the right direction until we have some consensus between the House and Senate," Duncan said, "and right now we don't."
Duncan said he wants to be "reasonable" in negotiating West Texas, but he said the map "has to be something, in my view, that protects agriculture and doesn't directly pair those two in a race."
But King indicated such a pairing is still under consideration.
"We want to help Randy Neugebauer stay in Congress," King said.
"Now, whether he's in an open seat or a seat paired with Charlie Stenholm, I don't know," King said. "West Texas is still under discussion."
Midland currently is in a district with Lubbock. Craddick contends it should have its own district because Lubbock is farming while Midland is oil production and ranching. The House passed a map with a Midland district; the Senate did not.
Dewhurst said the Senate agreed to have a new district in Midland after the meeting in Perry's office with Craddick, King, state Rep. Joe Crabb,R-Atascocita and lead Senate negotiator Sen. Todd Staples,R-Palestine.
"I believe a different approach on West Texas can be reached and we can have a mutually acceptable agreement on that," Dewhurst said.
"It's important that we focus on having a map that is fair to all Texas," he said. "It's bigger than any one person or two people."
Dewhurst also said he is not a "party" to any mapping plan "aimed at creating new districts for any specific would-be legislators." He did not explain what he meant.
Republican leaders haggled over West Texas congressional boundaries in closed-door meetings Monday but were unable to agree on a redistricting compromise.
The state's top leaders sat down with the Legislature's mapmakers for the first time since the two chambers passed conflicting remap plans this month. As rumors of a deal bounced around the Capitol, including a compromise supposedly brokered by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, his spokesman said late Monday such reports were premature.
"There is absolutely no deal," and none expected overnight, spokesman Dave Beckwith said.
As negotiations broke up Monday night, one participant said the only agreement is that House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, should have a seat based in his hometown. But, nettlesome details remained unresolved.
Republicans expressed confidence they'll meet their self-imposed Wednesday deadline for a plan to boost GOP influence in Congress by five or six seats. Both the House and the Senate have recessed until Thursday, awaiting a deal by the conferees.
"I think we're going to have an agreement on West Texas either today or tomorrow," Mr. David Dewhurst told reporters at a Fort Worth speaking engagement. He added that he expects final passage of the bill by Monday, described by Gov. Rick Perry as a "drop dead" date.
One participant said the 90-minute morning meeting marked a change from the prior practice of "playing tennis," lobbing competing maps and demands back and forth without any face-to-face discussion or hint of compromise.
About five or six alternative West Texas configurations were presented and discussed at the meeting, the participant said.
Some of those maps would achieve both Mr. Craddick's main demand – a congressional district dominated by Midland-Odessa – and Mr. Duncan's, which is protection for newcomer U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock.
Earlier, Mr. Craddick pushed through the House a map that threatens Mr. Neugebauer's job security by pitting him against U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Abilene. Mr. Duncan said he could not accept a map that forces his Lubbock constituents to choose between a hometown congressman, Mr. Neugebauer, and Mr. Stenholm, a strong supporter of agricultural interests important to Mr. Duncan's district.
Mr. Duncan persuaded the Senate to pass a plan that avoids that choice, by keeping the congressmen in separate districts, but denying the Midland-Odessa-based seat sought by the speaker.
At least some of the proposals to cure both men's objections share a common strategy, the participant said: pitting Mr. Stenholm against a GOP congressman other than Mr. Neugebauer. Proposed opponents include Amarillo-area U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, or U.S. Rep Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth.
Another person who attended the meeting agreed with that description but said the proposed pairing of Mr. Stenholm with Ms. Granger is unlikely, given the opposition of state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, author of the House map.
Another plan, proposed by Mr. Perry last week, would appease the speaker and Mr. Duncan by pairing Mr. Stenholm with U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. But that plan drew opposition from the Panhandle for splitting the region into two districts, and from Central Texas for separating Waco from Fort Hood.
One consequence of all this is a likely week's postponement of the deadline to file for primaries, and possibly a change in the primary date.
Lawmakers are already considering extending the filing period for congressional candidates by up to 12 days. Currently, the filing period is Dec. 3 to Jan. 2.
The unusual middecade redistricting push has also put a strain on local elections officials, said Robert Parten, Tarrant County elections administrator. And the prospect of moving the primary date would be daunting, he said.
"We expect there is going to be a lot of interest in this primary because of the presidential race," said Parten. His office must wait for the redistricting issue to be settled before it can mail registration cards to inform the county's 900,000 voters which congressional district they will vote in.
Historically, Texas has had little say in the presidential nominating process because the winning candidates had managed to lock support in the states with the earliest primaries. In 2004, Texas will conduct its primary on the same day as most of the nation's largest states, including California and New York.
Because President Bush is not expected to face serious opposition for the Republican nomination, any delay in the Texas presidential primary would only affect Democrats.
"Delaying the primaries would be an abuse of the voters and would deny Texans a say in who will be the next president," Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm said. "Just as importantly, moving back the primary will reduce turnouts in both parties' primaries and create confusion and frustration."
Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, rejected any assertion that moving the primary is motivated by partisan concerns.
"The governor hopes and believes that lawmakers can come to an agreement on redistricting this week so the primary can take place as scheduled," Walt said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Wentworth's bill to create a nonpartisan redistricting committee is dead again.
In a related matter, Sen. Jeff Wentworth's legislation to transfer the responsibility of drawing congressional boundaries in 2011 to a panel of citizens appears dead. Dewhurst had referred the bill to the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, where it appeared unlikely to resurface. Wentworth, R-San Antonio, wanted the legislation to go to the Senate Administration Committee, of which he is a member.
Todd Staples of Palestine, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, huddled with Dewhurst and Wentworth, then polled Senate Republicans on the floor Monday. The bill was not referred to a more favorable committee.
In a news release, the fledgling Center for Hispanic Advocacy described the holdout as tax-funded rest and relaxation in a plush hotel.
"You — the minority population they claimed to be protecting — paid for their $2.5 million, 44-day vacation and they gave you nothing," the release said.
The release lists e-mail links to the senators and urges recipients to contact the senators and "bill them" for the costs of their travel.
Jorge Uresti of Tyler, the 31-year-old founder of the organization, said the message had already gone to more than 1,000 contacts around the state.
It was unclear if any of those contacts had followed through with requests for refunds, but Uresti said response was enthusiastic.
He accused the senators of mischaracterizing redistricting proposals that might have meant more overall representation for Hispanics because they wanted to preserve Demo cratic power.
Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, one of the "Texas 11," said that he'd never heard of the group.
He insisted that the senators used their own money or "office holder accounts," which come from campaign contributions, to pay for food and lodging in New Mexico.
"I'd like to know who funds this organization," he said. "He certainly, I don't believe, speaks for the people I represent ... I can show (Uresti) a few thousand e-mails that came from people around Texas supporting what we do."
Uresti said his months-old organization is nonprofit and nonpartisan, and is preparing the first issue of The Hispanic Advocate, a magazine.
Two staff biographies show strong Republican party ties.
Both of the organization's press contacts worked on the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican John Cornyn; one leads Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's Texas Women's Alliance, the other interned this year for the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence.
The group also has been invited to speak before the Republican National Committee.