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Texas Republican Bucks His Party To Block 'Bathroom Bill'

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus at the state Capitol in April 2017. Straus opposes efforts by other powerful Republicans to pass a 'bathroom bill' that would affect transgender people.

During this month-long special legislative session, Texas Republicans are hoping to pass several red meat campaign promises, such as a ban on transgender bathroom access. But in a state where every statewide elected official is Republican and the party controls the legislature, there's one Republican trying to slow those efforts.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus had made himself enemy number one among the state's most conservative voters. His crime? Bipartisanship.

"I try to encourage cooperation. I try to encourage bipartisanship. I know that's not a very fashionable thing today," Straus said.

It's not just unfashionable, for some Republicans it's downright treasonous. When Straus focuses on bipartisan efforts, like a plan to increase public school funding, he's attacked by some for doing so at the expense of "real" conservative priorities.

"There's a growing number of conservatives in the House that don't understand why Speaker Straus is blocking a conservative agenda," said one critic, state Rep. Matt Schaefer.

The GOP divide

That line — "blocking a conservative agenda" — may sound familiar. From the Republican Senators who blocked a repeal of Obamacare to fights in Republicans state legislatures around the country, votes against the party line have brought a swift and often angry response. Straus has always said that if something doesn't come up for a vote in the Texas House, it's because the bill didn't have enough support. But, he admits he has blocked some legislation.

"I use the office and the authority that the members have given to me, on occasions, where I think it's necessary," Straus explained. "This bathroom bill is a perfect example of that."

The bill is also a perfect example of the divisions among Republicans — and the business interests that have backed the GOP over the years. And in Texas, those business leaders, from local chambers of commerce to giants like IBM and ExxonMobil, want nothing to do with the bathroom bill.

That's because of what happened in North Carolina, where a similar bill led to consumer boycotts and prompted some companies to avoid investing in the state.

Straus quotes from a recent editorial from a North Carolina newspaper.

"Why would Texas after seeing the example in North Carolina want to walk headfirst into a giant cactus? I think it's a good question and I hope that we don't go there," Straus said.

But the governor, lieutenant governor, state Senate and some in the House do want to go there. Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, says that tug-o-war between activists and business groups shows up in Straus's record as speaker.

"What you see is an ability to balance what different factions of the Republican Party want," Henson said, "while acknowledging that some of the issues that he may not put at the top of his list, are at the top of Republican primary voters lists."

Straus points to opposition from business groups and law enforcement, when explaining why he's kept the bathroom bill from getting a vote. But those same groups opposed another bill that priority for Republicans that Straus did help pass this spring.

"The House delivered anti-illegal immigration and border security measures, that are their most important issues for primary Republican voters in Texas. Full Stop," Henson said.

Election backlash?

But right now it's all or nothing for the most conservatives Republicans. To them, passing an anti-sanctuary cities bill is great — but unless Straus passes the bathroom bill, nothing else he's done matters. And Representative Schaefer says that's what voters will focus in primary elections in 2018.

"Are you with Lt. Governor Patrick and Gov. Abbott? Or are you with Joe Straus who's blocking a conservative agenda," Schaefer said. "He's really making it simple for people to understand."

Straus intends to run for re-election, and support in his Northern San Antonio House district remains strong. But if he returns to the House, Tea Party members and even the lieutenant governor, appear ready to support someone else for speaker.

Copyright 2017 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

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