Since the conclusion of the regular legislative session, we’ve been hearing rumors and rumblings from capitol sources that Governor Greg Abbott was likely to call the first of at least two special sessions to begin sometime after the Fourth of July holiday, and Abbott made it official yesterday with the announcement that lawmakers will be back in session starting July 8th.
While Abbott has set the date for the session to begin and all indications are that SB 7, the voter suppression bill Democrats managed to run out the clock on during the regular session, will be the chief priority Abbott wants the legislature to hash out, we also expect a slew of other red meat bills to be added to the call, with Abbott’s team only going so far as to say they would release the list of agenda items closer to the beginning of the session.
Texas Democrats and the progressive movement should have every expectation that Abbott will look to overload the agenda with a slew of conservative items in an effort to force Democrats to fight back on multiple fronts, a strategy similar to their approach during the regular session when Democrats were forced to fight against bad bills in multiple committees and floor votes at the same time.
One point of tension that is continuing to worsen between the executive and legislative branches of state government is Abbott’s recent sour grapes decision to veto funding for the state legislature as an act of punishment for Democrats leaving the floor and breaking quorum in the final debate over SB 7, preventing the bill from becoming law.
That punitive action from Abbott won’t have much impact on the lawmakers themselves, who get paid peanuts each session for the privilege of doing the people’s work. It will, however, have a detrimental effect on the hundreds of legislative and support staffers who keep the building working, and Abbott and his team seem intent on using that pain point to extract as much leverage as they can during the special session.
The logic is this: only the governor has the ability to add issues to the call for a special session, and Abbott alone has the ability to place an item on the agenda that would quickly restore the legislature’s funding and reverse his veto. Such a bill would likely pass on unanimous consent, but Abbott’s team is preparing to use it as a carrot to force Democratic offices into either complying with or lessening their fight against certain Republican bills.
And this is a special session where Abbott is expected to play his role as the ultimate power broker for all its worth. Abbott has a rare opportunity to pacify Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, with whom he always seems to have an up-and-down relationship, by adding a few of Patrick’s preferred priorities to the call, and he can also use the session as an opportunity to further shore up his standing with voters on the far right in the run-up to the 2022 primary.
That may not be the only important date Abbott has mapped out in his mind, as his activity over the first six months of the year seems like an almost handwritten checklist of ways to launch yourself into the conversation for the 2024 presidential election should Donald Trump not make a return to the national political scene.
Abbott’s advisors have said openly that he isn’t considering a 2024 campaign, but the governor has assertively positioned himself as a leading culture warrior for the right, even before he announced plans to build a wall along the state’s southern border, and the public denials may be carefully calculated politics aimed at an audience of one.
It remains to be seen if Trump’s health, both physically and legally, will be good enough for him to jump into a 2024 campaign, and laying low may help a politician like Abbott, who has found himself thoroughly eclipsed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis the last few years, score some goodwill with Trump while keeping his options open for a move up to the next level.
And, let’s be honest, Governor of Texas is not an office that is known to stall the ambitions of its occupants. Abbott’s immediate two predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, both sought the presidency. While Perry struck out in two tries for the highest office in the land, Bush won the 2000 race and was re-elected in 2004.
For Abbott to have any chance to make it onto the presidential stage, be it in 2024 or 2028, he needs to seize every opportunity to break out in a state filled with more bombastic personalities like Patrick and outgoing state GOP chairman Allen West, who himself may mount a challenge to Abbott. And, unfortunately for Texans hungry for good government, there are few opportunities to grab attention as compelling as a special session.
But could Abbott have something even more nefarious than standard-issue political pandering up his sleeve for this session? Possibly.
On Tuesday, Texas was among 15 states that signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which administers the Census, seeking the release of Census data this month, or as soon as possible, as opposed to the August 16th date the Census Bureau has already set for the release of that data.
The states have argued that releasing the data sooner will help aid states in the redistricting process, and while a lot of work would need to be done between the data being released and maps being debated in the legislature, it is conceivable that Abbott and Texas Republicans could try to fast track a new set of maps, adding redistricting to the special session call and making Texas an even larger ground zero in the battles over voting rights and redistricting, and stretching Democrats even thinner as they attempt to fight back against.
What Abbott may not be fully getting his arms around yet is how thoroughly the Democratic base, and a younger generation of Democratic lawmakers in particular, is energized for this fight. With the national debate around the For the People Act and other voting rights issues likely to continue taking up a lot of oxygen in national news coverage, and Texas Democrats discovering a new bully pulpit after staging their dramatic walkout, Texas is quickly becoming the epicenter for this fight, and with the eyes of the nation on Texas, Democrats in the state may be more up for a fight than ever.
They’ve also seen exactly where good faith negotiations with Texas Republicans will get them. While the Texas House Democratic Caucus received almost universal praise for their decision to walk off the floor a few weeks ago, there were still members who didn’t want to break quorum. Some of those same members had expressed hope that the conference committee would produce a more palatable compromise bill, leaving some of the concessions Democrats managed to win in the House intact.
They didn’t do that. In fact, the final bill Republicans tried to pass took the voter suppression legislation even farther, discovering newfound depths in their quest to make it harder for virtually every group of Texans to vote, and their willingness to set aside their own rules to pass the bills into law when they had exhausted every legal avenue to do so.
Texas Republicans have thrown down a marker for how far they’re willing to go to suppress the vote. Texas Democrats need to throw down a marker of their own and show Republicans they’re united and resolved to fight like hell and stop them.