Back in August, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said rapport among the state’s top Republicans had greatly improved. But that was before the strain of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Senate in early September.
Moments after the Senate voted to acquit Paxton on all counts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the judge in the impeachment trial, unleashed a rhetorical blowtorch castigating the House leadership for wasting the time and resources of the state by pushing forward with impeachment charges.
Now, far-right members of the House and Texas GOP leadership have called for Phelan to step down, painting the speaker as disloyal, a Republican in name only, and more. By all accounts, there’s no love lost on Phelan’s part, either. The mutual recriminations are set to culminate in just a few days when the Texas House and Senate reconvene for another special session.
Aarón Torres, who has been reporting on this issue for The Dallas Morning News, said the rift between Phelan and other top Republican leaders was clear as early as January.
“Before the legislative session, there was a bit of pressure on Speaker Dade Phelan, who is currently in his second term as speaker, to not appoint Democrats to be committee chairs of different committees in the House,” Torres said. “Phelan decided to ignore those requests from far-right Republicans and very far-right Republican groups. And ever since then, there’s been this kind of friction between in and the more far-right members of the party.”
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This friction culminated in May when Paxton called on Phelan to resign, accusing him of being drunk at work.
“This video kept circulating online of people accusing Phelan of being drunk on the job. It should be clear that there has never been any proof that Phelan was drunk on the job,” Torres said. “Paxton, in his call for Phelan to resign, not only used the video, but also claimed that Phelan was the main reason that several conservative priority bills died. And since then, a lot of other far-right Republicans – either in the House or conservative activists in Texas – have also been asking for Phelan to step down.”
Torres said the dynamic between Republican political leaders could prove critical in the special session, where lawmakers are expected to take up the issue of education savings accounts, or a school voucher plan. Often called school choice by supporters, these bills passed the Senate but not the House during the regular session.
“The reason they died in the House is, one, Democrats are largely opposed to any type of school choice program, but also several rural Republicans are … unsupportive of different education savings accounts,” Torres said. “But because Dade Phelan is the Republican speaker and he is the ‘overseer,’ leader of that chamber, several far-right members are pointing at him and making it seem like it’s his fault that school choice hasn’t been passed.
“So if school choice, for example, doesn’t get passed in the special session that’s supposed to start next week, then obviously the pressure is going to increase even more and more on Phelan, because people are going to feel like it’s his fault that these conservative bills aren’t passing.”
Despite the calls on Phelan to vacate the speakership, Torres said it would be somewhat challenging for lawmakers to force him out.
“There is the ability to have a motion to vacate. We saw last night Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida filed a motion to vacate for U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. However, in Texas, it’s not that easy. There’s going to have to be a majority of members who are going to have to support a motion to vacate,” Torres said. “Phelan and his office haven’t commented or spoken about the calls on him to resign. They seem to be ignoring all these calls. So it’ll be interesting what happens next week, the first time we all see everybody back in the Capitol.”