AUSTIN — Their party survived the 2020 election. Now, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are trying to outrun the coronavirus pandemic and set themselves up for reelection to third terms next year.
But first, they must manage a session of the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature beginning Tuesday. It’ll be held amid the most dire public health threat in at least a century.
For Abbott, who may have presidential ambitions, and Patrick, who runs the Senate, the uncertainty over how lawmakers even can perform their most intensely social of jobs — huddling and sizing up one another in the capital city for 140 days — creates opportunity.
Amid rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, it’s clear the session won’t be business as usual at the Texas Capitol, which reopened to the public Monday.
How many topics the legislators can tackle is unclear. So are whether Texas Republicans can insulate themselves against intraparty recriminations expected after President Donald Trump’s challenge of the presidential election, and which “red meat” issues Abbott and Patrick will seize during the session as fodder for 2022 GOP primary voters.
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus summed up 2021 in three words: “Significant political flux.”
“We’ve got a new House speaker. There are a sizable number of new members,” he explained. “There’s a tight budget, a Democrat in the White House and a governor who might run for president. Add redistricting on top of all of that, and you’ve got a recipe for a very messy session.”
Still, Abbott and Patrick can set the table for their reelection campaigns with a display of strong leadership. Whether they can submerge lingering frictions between themselves from the past three sessions will be closely watched.
So will the ability of Abbott and Patrick to play well with the House’s new leader, presumptive Speaker Dade Phelan, a fourth-term Republican from Beaumont.
In 2019, Abbott and outgoing Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, often formed a united front against Patrick and the Senate in disputes over whether to give merit pay raises to teachers or across-the-board hikes, and what share of new school funding had to go to compensation.
Also, Abbott badly wanted to make a play for a higher state sales tax, with the increased revenue paying for deeper school property tax cuts. The tax swap failed. Still, the “Big 3” were able to forge compromises on school finance and property taxes — and avoid an overtime session.
Throughout Abbott’s six-year tenure as governor, he and GOP leaders have avoided special sessions. That’s been a point of pride for Abbott, a former judge and attorney general who never was in the Legislature — and whose deal-making chops were questioned after the 2015 session, his first.
UH’s Rottinghaus said this year has many similarities to 2011, when the rise of the tea party fueled enmity within the GOP — then-Speaker Joe Straus was the right’s main target. That year, Republicans infuriated Democrats by ramming through voter ID and a sonogram bill on abortion.
This year, Rottinghaus said, each of the Big 3 faces some intraparty and institutional constraints that may make the session’s work product a tad less conservative than GOP hard-liners want.
“Dan Patrick is going to likely have to change the Senate rules to be able to get what he wants. And even at that, he still needs to keep Republicans in line — which is not a done deal,” Rottinghaus said.
“Dade Phelan ……