The Republican Party is riven by dissension and unhappiness in the most populous state where it still maintains close to absolute political control, as seen by the impeachment of the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, by a majority of his fellow Republicans.
The underlying resentments, which were not about specific people but rather how Republicans should use their power and what shape the party should take going forward, had been building a force for months, if not years before the House of Representatives vote on Saturday that tore suddenly through the centre of Texas politics.
The controversy over Mr Paxton’s impeachment, which gained support from prominent national Republicans like former President Donald J. Trump, provided a sharp illustration of two increasingly antagonistic currents in Republican politics. Although the outburst was unexpected—as of a week ago, there had been little public sign that impeachment could be imminent—it was the culmination of a Texas Legislature session marked by progressively rising intraparty strife. Republicans control both houses.
Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at the University of Houston, described the conflict as one between the Republican Party under Trump and the Republican Party as it has historically been. He continued that the struggle is particularly crucial in Texas because rising urbanization and demographic shifts pose a danger to the party’s ability to dominate Democrats.
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Republicans must decide whether they want to continue in office for a few more years by appealing to a declining number of senior citizens. The party’s most conservative members, Mr Cortina said. Or do you want to make an investment in a Republican Party that will survive in Texas? Some of the most extreme legislators were heard screaming against the power struggles of their moderate leadership in the House during the impeachment hearing.
Rep. Tony Tinderholt pleaded with his fellow Republicans not to vote to remove Mr Paxton, an ardent conservative who has gained national notoriety for taking on Democrats on issues like voting rights, health care, and immigration. “Don’t end our session this way,” he said. “Don’t defame this organization.” In the end, 60 of the 85 Republicans in the Texas House disagreed and voted to remove Mr. Paxton from office temporarily awaiting a trial in the State Senate on charges of corruption, bribery, and abuse of authority.
By the end of the legislative session, which ends formally on Monday, the conservative juggernaut that had swept in a wave of legislation during lawmakers’ previous session two years ago encountered significant pushback, not just from Democrats but also from fellow Texas Republicans willing to draw a line in the sand on some issues.
It seemed almost clear that a special session would be called to resolve some of the persistent differences, including those about Mr Paxton’s future, border security, property taxes, education financing, and renewable energy regulations. As several of their demands passed the State Senate only to be blocked in the Texas House, anger among conservative activists and hard-right lawmakers had been growing for months.
In previous legislative sessions, the two chambers have frequently clashed, with the House serving as a more moderate check on the hard-right leadership of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who rules over the Senate. The Senate, which swiftly passed several hard-line bills, was where the majority of the eye-catching conservative proposals originated.
These included bills that would have ended tenure in state universities, added extensive new voting restrictions in Houston, and placed the Ten Commandments in every Texas public school classroom. But as the weeks went by and the deadlines drew near, tensions increased. To the dismay of some of the House’s more conservative members, a number of the Senate’s top goals sat in the House committees before being formally killed.
Mr Patrick started referring to Dade Phelan, the House speaker, who had a different plan, by one of the most derogatory nicknames one can think of in Texas politics: “California Dade.” The disagreement was over how to best reduce property taxes for Texans, a seemingly simple lift in a tax-averse state that was sitting on a more than $30 billion budget surplus.
Mr Trump was even asked for his opinion by Mr Patrick. The former president took the moniker and supported Mr Patrick’s proposal for property taxes. Although that strategy failed to advance the talks, it did draw attention to Mr Phelan, a Republican from the city of Beaumont. The House and Senate reached a spending agreement on Saturday that included more than $17 billion for a tax cut, but they are still at odds over the details of how it would be implemented.
The California nickname was supplanted last week by “Drunk Dade” in some conservative activist circles after Mr Paxton claimed that Mr Phelan had consumed alcohol at a recent late-night House session. The charge was made just as it became evident that the House had been looking into Mr Paxton in secret; Mr Phelan refuted it.
Before and after the impeachment vote on Saturday, Mr Trump once more criticized Mr Phelan and vowed to “fight” any Republicans who supported the move. Since the beginning of the session, the Republican Party of Texas, which has taken a position to the right of many state elected officials, has been attacking Mr Phelan. In February, they ran radio ads against him because he upheld a long-standing tradition of letting Democrats chair some committees.
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said: “I think of it as part of an evolution rather than anything specifically focused on Phelan.” Social conservatives are becoming increasingly irate by their lack of authority over the Texas House compared to Patrick’s in the Senate, which would allow them to advance their agenda.
On Saturday, the contrasts came to a head in a show that is uncommon in the current climate of hyper-partisanship: a formal hearing presided over by Republicans that held a popular but scandal-riddled legislator from their ranks accountable. It happened quickly: Mr Paxton had been impeached just days after the probe was first made public.
Mr Jillson stated, “I have been following this for a long time, and I have never really seen such a major development erupt so suddenly.” Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not commented on the impeachment, toured the state to rally Republican support for his main policy objective: a program to utilize public funds to pay for private schools. While lawmakers battled in Austin.
Mr Abbott travelled to Christian schools and churches throughout Texas to promote what are referred to as school vouchers or school choice. He also made appearances with the powerful Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative foundation supported by significant Republican donors.
The State Senate, which approved a plan to implement school choice via so-called education savings accounts, or E.S.As, supported the governor, who has attempted to mediate between the party’s factions. However, many rural Republicans, especially those in the Texas House, opposed the move. This month, the governor made a vehement threat to use his authority to compel lawmakers to return for another legislative session after the current one expires.
It became apparent that he would have to if he wanted to save his school finance proposal a few hours after the impeachment vote on Saturday: In a last-ditch effort, Senate Republicans tried to attach a plan for school vouchers to a House package that would have increased teacher compensation and school spending, but they were unsuccessful.
“Teacher raises are being held hostage to support an E.S.A. plan!” The bill’s sponsor, Texas Panhandle Republican representative Ken King, said as much in a statement on Saturday. It is unacceptable what the governor and senators did.
Despite the divisions, some of the difficult items of legislation passed both chambers. A law that would have prohibited hormone therapy, surgeries, and other medical care for transgender youngsters was approved. The same was true of a plan that Democrats ridiculed as the “Death Star bill” because it would bar local governments, even those in Democratic-run large cities, from passing their local laws on matters like labour protections.
Additionally, lawmakers approved a bill allowing school districts to employ chaplains from other faiths as counsellors. Even if Mr Abbott does not call them back, lawmakers will return to the Capitol for a special session that is different from others and that is sure to further erode Republican unity: the trial of Mr Paxton in the Senate.
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The date for what will be the first statewide formal impeachment trial in Texas in more than a century, where the fault lines in the Republican Party are likely to be front and centre, has not yet been established. The argument is made by House representatives. There will be a chance for Mr Paxton to speak up. Additionally, the senators will serve as the jury, including Mr Paxton’s wife Angela and his longtime friend Bryan Hughes, unless they withdraw.
Firebrand conservative Mr Patrick, who will preside over the trial and establish its rules, receives funding and support from members of the same political wing as Mr Paxton. However, Mr Patrick has so far kept a neutral stance when it comes to the case. In an interview with the Y’all-its podcast, he stated, “The senators, all 31 senators, will have a vote.” We’ll all act responsibly, just like a jury would.
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