Texas House Republicans voted Friday to pre-select their House speaker candidate for the 2019 legislative session and beyond, effectively bypassing Democrats in filling the powerful leadership position.
Conservative Republicans championed the change, hoping the speaker slot will be filled by a House member who is more conservative than the current speaker. Their efforts gained momentum after Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican from San Antonio, announced in October that he will not seek re-election next year.
Conservatives had grown increasingly frustrated that the House under Straus, whose rise to speaker in 2009 was made possible with Democratic support, had killed favored legislation earlier this year, including measures to restrict transgender-friendly bathrooms, cap state budget growth and require voter approval for certain property tax increases.
Adopted unanimously during a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Caucus, the new bylaw was designed to ensure that the next speaker will be the first choice of Republican House members, who currently outnumber Democrats 95-55, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said after the vote.
Democrats have said the rule change would increase partisan strife and gridlock, making the Texas House function more like the U.S. House, where the majority party elects its consensus nominee as speaker.
Simmons said the new process should improve unity, at least within his party.
“It’s a great day for us to be able to be lined up behind one nominee,” he said. “People decide to be Republicans or Democrats for a reason. You want to make sure you have as much unity as possible, especially when you are picking your leadership.”
The Texas Constitution requires the 150 members of the House to select a speaker in a vote that is held on the first day of each legislative session, near the start of every odd-numbered year.
Some Democrats have argued that the new Texas GOP rule violates the constitutional requirement by discounting their votes before they could be cast. Straus, who did not attend the caucus meeting, suggested the same Friday, telling reporters that he believed the new rule required the constitution to be amended, according to the Texas Tribune.
Under the new rule, the Republican caucus will meet in December 2018 to vote, via secret ballot, on a speaker candidate to present to the entire House. There is no limit on how many Republicans can place their names into consideration.
The winner must have support of two-thirds of those voting, with the lowest vote-getter dropping out in subsequent balloting. Once down to two nominees, the winning threshold would drop to 60 percent if a victor does not emerge after a few rounds of voting, Simmons said.
The bylaw adopted Friday calls for all GOP House members to commit to supporting the winning candidate when the full House elects a speaker.
There is, however, no enforcement mechanism to ensure that support is given, said Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.
Simmons said he expected the GOP caucus to stick together.
“With the unanimous vote we had today, I just believe that they will. Now, you know, there’s no guarantee. Everybody’s their own person, they will do what they believe is right, but I just believe that they will,” he said.
Friday’s vote was a victory for the House Freedom Caucus, 12 tea party members who were instrumental in pushing for the change.
“Look, this is historic,” said Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, chairman of the group. “There were a lot of skeptics, even among the people who voted today.”
Thus far, two GOP House members have said they will run for speaker in 2019:
• Rep. John Zerwas of Richmond, a Straus loyalist and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
• Rep. Phil King of Weatherford, who announced that he would seek to unseat Straus before the speaker had said he will retire.
Additional candidates are likely to emerge over the next year.