The House Republican Caucus unanimously voted to amend its bylaws to call for it to elect a favored Speaker candidate through a secret ballot.
A candidate for Speaker must receive the support of two thirds of the caucus to be considered the caucus’s preferred candidate. The vote threshold drops to three fifths if neither of the last two candidates can get to two thirds’ support. The bylaws do not include enforcement provisions, but the Republican Party of Texas is asking its House candidates to sign a statement that they will vote for the Caucus’s preferred candidate.
A letter from the Freedom Caucus to Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), the chair of the Republican caucus, is regarded as the precipitating event leading to the formation of a work group on Speaker selection and, ultimately, to today’s vote. Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, called the new process a “historic change” in a tweet. “Good process can lead to a great GOP Speaker nominee,” he said, a sentiment generally echoed by other Republican members.
Empower Texans called it a “stunning failure” that is “out of step with the Republican platform.” A recent resolution approved by the State Republican Executive Committee called for the caucus to select a candidate by majority vote.
The new process would, in effect, mirror the process used by the Republican caucus just prior to the 2011 legislative session. Then-Reps. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) and Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) challenged Speaker Joe Straus, and each presented their case to the assembled caucus. Straus reportedly received 70 votes – surpassing a hypothetical two-thirds threshold – in a nonbinding, vote. Chisum withdrew and endorsed Paxton, who ultimately declined to have his name placed in nomination. Straus was re-elected by acclamation.
In 2015, a second Republican’s name was placed in nomination, forcing a roll-call vote on the House floor. Former Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) received 19 votes to Straus’s 127. Had the Republican caucus voted beforehand, Straus would have received 80% of vote, assuming the House floor vote reflected Turner’s true level of support among the caucus.
The new caucus rule does not change the fact that the Constitution* still requires the Speaker to be chosen by a vote of the entire House. While on paper it appears that the Republican caucus will choose the Speaker with no input from Democrats, the true degree to which the caucus can bypass Democrats is a function of their relative numbers.
Straus was first elected Speaker at a time when Republicans had a two-seat majority, enabling a group of 11 Republicans to join most of the chamber’s Democrats to produce a majority coalition. Entering the 2017 session, they had a 40-vote majority. It would have taken at least 21 Republicans and all of the Democrats to create a majority coalition.
Such a coalition is conceivable even under the new caucus process, regardless of the vote threshold needed to determine the caucus’s pick for Speaker. The larger the Republican advantage, the less likely defectors could swing the gavel to a candidate whose majority backing comes from the other caucus. Of course, the larger advantage any party has, the less influence the other party would have on any activity in the chamber, from selecting a speaker to tabling an amendment.
* Article III, Sec. 9(b) provides that “The House of Representatives shall, when it first assembles, organize temporarily, and thereupon proceed to the election of a Speaker from its own members.”
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