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The Speaker speaks, and a Voter ID update

So how is Speaker Joe Straus doing?

Three months into his first term leading the 150-member chamber, Republican Speaker Joe Straus is emerging as a bipartisan compromise-seeker, rejecting much of the power that his predecessor so coveted.

Straus still faces some tough tests, but just four years after Craddick was anointed as the most powerful Texan by Texas Monthly magazine, observers say the young GOP leader has shifted power back to the House.

“Not some, probably all,” said Rep. Tommy Merritt, a Longview Republican when asked if the speaker has given up some of the office’s power. “He’s doing exactly what a good speaker should do. He’s wielding the gavel and trying to make fair rulings to make the will of the House work for Texas.”

Straus’ first big victory came last week when the normally raucous House unanimously approved the $178 billion budget. It was the first time in a decade that the usually thorny state budget came out with 149-0 approval.

In a rare sit-down, on-the-record interview with The Associated Press, Straus said the unanimous vote was the result of weeks of negotiations and compromise.

“No one, right or left, Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, is going to crush somebody by sheer force this session,” said Straus, the state’s first Jewish speaker.

I’d say that’s a fair interpretation. As I’ve said before, Straus hasn’t been exactly what I’d hoped for in a non-Tom Craddick Speaker, but he’s still a lot better than Tom Craddick. The House has been remarkably free of strife, and more importantly it’s been completely free of attempts by the Speaker to impose his will on everything in his path. That’s as much a function of the near-even split as anything else, but the point is that Craddick couldn’t have managed under those conditions; he would have been what he has always been. The House would have been a disaster area with him in charge.

Of course, there’s still a lot of time left, and at least one big stinking partisan blob of an “issue” that remains unresolved.

Lately, Straus has been working to forge a compromise on an effort to strengthen voter identification requirements, a measure so divisive it sparked partisan meltdown in the Senate and triggered threats of lawsuits.

The legislation is expected to be debated by the House within the next couple of weeks. But by many accounts, a House compromise is on the horizon. Unlike the Senate, Straus said, the House wasn’t going to “pull the pin on the grenade and be irresponsible, which I think they were.”

“They just didn’t care about the consequences of the emotional side of it,” he said. “And we’re trying to be deliberate and slow … we’re trying to find solutions, not just talking points for somebody’s political agenda.”

Rep. Aaron Pena writes that voter ID could be on the agenda for the Elections Committee as early as tomorrow, with some kind of compromise voter ID bill to be debated. That’s assuming that the whole thing doesn’t get blown up by the Republican hardcore, as documented by Gardner Selby:

I’m hearing from Capitol sources that Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, privately told GOP colleagues today he’d reached closure on his intended-to-be-a-compromise version of voter ID legislation and might even issue an afternoon press release saying so.

To which, some Republicans reportedly reacted: “Whoa, Nelly (or Toddy).”

Their beef: They’d prefer not to see Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Elections, running out a softened-up approach that they don’t think meets the intended ID mandate.

True, it’d be a painful political boomerang for Republicans to see House Democrats (on the short end of the 76-74 House split between the parties) wrest control of the GOP’s most-valued legislative proposal (though the flip side, perhaps fueling Smith’s hunt for common ground, is that if the Senate-approved version of voter ID isn’t tweaked, he could fall short of getting the proposal out of his committee or off the House floor; tough cookies).

Until Smith speaks out (yup, I’ve tried to reach him), I’m left with separate statements from Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, who takes a hard line on the voter ID front, and from 51 House Republicans (including Brown) similarly saying they’re not interested in phasing in changes or making it easier for most anyone to vote without presenting proof of their identity.

GOP blow-up? I’m waiting to hear more.

For what it’s worth, Rep. Smith says it was all sweetness and light when he addressed the caucus about his bill. Sure it was. I can’t think of a better resolution to this mess than a GOP implosion as no bill gets passed because the hardliners refuse to accept a compromise, while their version fails to get enough votes. Nothing could illustrate the point that this is all just a naked partisan power grab than that. Form a circle, Republicans, and load up those AK-47s! We’ll start popping the popcorn now.

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