Sniping tweets. Public critiques and blistering feuds. And the leader of one chamber of the Legislature being denied entry to another. The tension between top Texas Republicans has been impossible to ignore over the past week, a stretch that’s proven to be one of the most disastrous in recent memory for the GOP. In a matter of days, the state’s majority party went from the cusp of capping off the 2021 legislative session in convincing fashion (read: stripping Texans of vital voting rights) to a state of sheer pandemonium. Now, with several of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s key priorities very much in jeopardy, Texas conservatives are turning on each other in epic fashion.
Like so many political cataclysms, this GOP crisis was a long time in the making. Indeed, a number of cracks had already begun to surface in the days leading up to Democrats’ headline-grabbing walkout last Sunday. To kick things off, Abbott and Patrick traded a series of barbs about who has the power to call a special session — an exchange that amounted to little more than a political pissing contest.
“That’s pretty goofy because everybody knows there’s only one person with the authority to call a special session, and that’s the governor,” Abbott said in a biting retort on May 26 when asked about Patrick’s demands for a special session. “So if anyone tries to hold hostage this legislative session to force a special session, that person will be putting their members, in the Senate or the House, potentially into a special session for another two years because I’m gonna make sure that we get things passed, not just open up some debating society.”
In layman’s terms, the message simply read: Back the f*** off and play your part, Dan.
In response, Patrick shot back that he wasn’t claiming to have the ability to call a special session, but that it was his — and any other lawmaker’s — right to issue a request for one. He also rebuffed the governor’s claim that he was attempting to hamstring legislative efforts to ensure bills he strongly desires, like sports bans for trans youth, were given priority.
But Patrick wasn’t done there. The same day that Abbott barked back at him, the lieutenant governor riled yet another flank of the Texas GOP leadership when he went after House Speaker Dade Phelan in a statement to state senators that was dripping with disdain. “As you all know, the House was not here Friday. The House was not here Saturday. The House has already quit for today,” he said. “So we’re working hard, we’re passing bills — they weren’t here for two days in the last five. They’re gone now. They killed key bills of yours last night, because they weren’t here.”
There was also the wristband incident. Phelan, hoping to observe the Senate’s activities, attempted to enter the chamber — only to be denied by security officials. Following the incident, reports surfaced that Phelan wasn’t allowed in because he didn’t have the required wristband proving that he’d tested negative for COVID-19. The speaker abruptly left, further sparking questions about a growing rift between him and Patrick.
Incredibly all of this happened before Democrats broke quorum. In the days since, Republicans have been engulfed in dueling controversies that have pushed their leadership to the brink and shined a light on their tyrannical policies. Abbott has continued his dispute with Patrick. Patrick has blamed Phelan for the walkout, suggesting that he doesn’t have control of his chamber. Phelan has publicly said that he and the lieutenant governor have a fine relationship, but anyone who’s paying even the slightest bit of attention can see that’s not the case. In fact, as Signal contributor Joe Deshotel said in a recent episode of the SignalCast, the two leaders are reportedly not speaking at all.
The question, of course, is what does this all mean? For one, Republicans’ infighting and petty disputes left the door open for Democrats to delay the passage of bills like SB 7, which is arguably the most dangerous anti-voting bill in the country. As a result, such legislation will have to be confronted in the light of day and given the national attention that it deserves, rather than being passed at midnight with nobody watching. From a broader perspective, though, this failure is further proof that the GOP, for all its electoral success in Texas, still cannot do the one thing lawmakers are selected to do: govern. More specifically, Abbott and Patrick have proven, once again, how incapable they are as legislators.
Make no mistake about it — this session has been nothing short of devastating not just for Democrats, but for the people of Texas. Our state’s grid is still in shambles, a foreboding development considering some experts say a summer heatwave could incite another energy crisis; the health and economic fallouts from COVID-19, especially for low-income residents, has been entirely ignored by Republican leadership; much-needed police reform efforts have instead made way for “Back the blue” bills that only exacerbate existing issues within our public safety spheres. And a litany of appalling laws are now in place, including permitless carry gun legislation and the most egregious attack on abortion access to date.
None of these policy failings can be ignored, nor should they be overshadowed by stories about Republican blood feuds. The GOP’s latest political circus cannot take precedence over its inability to aid, protect, and strengthen Texans. Instead, these two narratives must be married together as the strongest indictment yet of Lone Star conservatives. Our state deserves a government that’s compassionate, representative of its constituents, and is looking to solve hard problems, not create more. At the very least, it deserves a government that’s interested in, well, governing.
For liberals, progressives, or even just people who support basic rights, this has undoubtedly been the session from hell. But with a special session looming and plenty more fights to come when redistricting rolls around, Democrats have to view these coming months for what they are: The last and best opportunity to show Texans why Abbott and Patrick must go in 2022.
Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images