The deep fractures in the Texas House GOP were on full display Thursday evening as lawmakers faced down a midnight deadline to pass bills out of the chamber.
The night began with a group of Tea Party-aligned lawmakers announcing plans to use a procedural maneuver to kill more than 100 bills in retribution for what they called the "petty personal politics" of the Republican-controlled chamber. It ended with barely restrained chaos, as conservatives tried tactic after tactic to derail legislation.
About 30 minutes before the midnight deadline, state Rep. Jonathan Sticklandtook to the back microphone to denounce the House leadership's use of rules to muzzle dissent.
"It's disgusting! It's disgusting!" he shouted.
The Bedford Republican’s efforts to influence the House agenda at various points prompted him to charge toward the dais shouting after the microphone at his podium was turned off. In another moment, the chamber erupted in laughter at his request — just a few minutes before midnight — to make a personal privilege speech, a usually somber occasion that draws silence from fellow members.
The highest drama of the night came when state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, took to the podium to plea, amid sobs, for his colleagues to hear a bill on experimental stem cell treatments. In the last hour of the evening, it became clear that a group of lawmakers intended to extend their discussion on a bill preceding it on the calendar as long as possible.
Springer broke down as he described how such treatments could help his wife.
"Maybe my wife will walk," Springer said. "I'd trade every single bill I've passed, every single one, to get the chance to hear HB 810."
But that only briefly loosened the conservatives' blockade of bills.
It was unclear if they had a particular measure in their crosshairs, but they did succeed in killing what's known as the sunset safety net bill. If a similar measure does not come out of the Senate, it could mean Gov. Greg Abbott will have to reconvene lawmakers for a special session. All state agencies must undergo periodic reviews by the Legislature or be forced to shut down.
Earlier in the evening, members of the self-labeled Freedom Caucus signaled their intent to do damage with an impromptu news conference where they announced they would use a procedural maneuver to kill more than 100 bills set for Friday morning.
They said the time had come to strike back against House leaders after what they’re calling a session of routine obstruction of key anti-abortion, 2nd Amendment and property rights bills.
"The fact that we stand at the back mic to hold leadership accountable for the rules and they get frustrated and they start killing our legislation is absolutely absurd," said state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington. "The fact that priority items and emergency items for Republicans are not being brought to the floor for us to fight for is absolutely disgusting."
The targeted bills are on the local and consent calendar, which fast tracks legislation not expected to generate debate. If five or more lawmakers object to a bill on that calendar, it must be considered in the regular legislative process.
The move comes after bills from six conservative lawmakers were removed from the local and consent calendar earlier this evening, which effectively kills them because the House faces a deadline to pass bills on the general calendar tonight.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, called the move "another direct shot at the conservative lawmakers of this House."
"It's been personal attacks, personal retributions, petty personal politics. And this caucus has had enough of it," Leach said.
Throughout the session, often to the indignation of their colleagues, members of the Freedom Caucus have been knocking other lawmakers' legislation off the fast-track calendar. But Leach said their efforts to stop bills have always been about policy — not "personal retribution."
Included in the bills on the targeted calendar is a measure from state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, that would ban school districts from identifying students without enough money in their school lunch accounts and allow families a grace period to resolve an insufficient balance on a meal card.
Other pieces of legislation expected to be blocked Friday are Rep. Eric Johnson's House Bill 2480 and Rep. Philip Cortez's House Bill 3196, both of which pertain to housing issues, as well as House Bill 1158 by Rep. Sarah Davis, which would help first-time pregnant women in Medicaid connect to health services.
Both Johnson and Cortez said they only learned of plans to block the bills shortly before they initially came up Tuesday.
"When I walked in, Stickland and Rinaldi, they were literally going from desk to desk or member to member and saying, ‘Hey, we're popping your bill,’" said Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat.
State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, had seven bills set to be considered on the calendar tomorrow, more than any other lawmaker.
“What’s sad about this whole thing is that the turmoil in the GOP is going to affect good public policy for Texans,” Blanco said. “They are making a mockery of the process.”