Politics
5:32 pm
Wed June 29, 2011

Updated: Lawmakers Call it Quits, Leave Unfinished Business

The Senate's version of a bill to criminalize intrusive pat-downs by federal agents with the Transportation Security Administration has died in the House, after the chamber couldn't get the four-fifths vote needed to suspend the rules.

The 96-26 vote meant the measure couldn't pass before the end of the special session, so House lawmakers adjourned sine die. 

That leaves two of Gov. Rick Perry's special session priorities — TSA and sanctuary cities — incomplete, but the governor doesn't seem compelled to call lawmakers back again. 

“Although I am disappointed lawmakers did not finalize legislation that would have banned sanctuary cities, I commend the Legislature’s work to pass measures that further strengthen our legal system through loser pays lawsuit reform, uphold the integrity of the ballot box by requiring voters to present photo ID at polling places, protect unborn life by requiring an ultrasound before an abortion, strengthen private property rights, and increase penalties for individuals who participate in human trafficking," Perry said in a statement. "And although the airport pat-down bill did not pass, it did initiate a public discussion and some changes in airport security procedures."

While Democrats argued the TSA bill was political in nature and unfairly targeted at federal agents doing their job, Republicans in the House were more angry at the Senate's decision to adjourn early yesterday without passing HB 41, the House's version of the bill they said had been vetted by the attorney general's office. The Senate version was more strict, and House lawmakers had lingering concerns over whether it could withstand a challenge from the Department of Justice, which warned the state last month about the possibility of shutting down airports in Texas if TSA officers could not conduct screenings.

In response to the take it or leave it option before them, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said, "It's insulting!" After the session adjourned, he went even further with his criticism of the Senate: "In my humble estimation, they have nothing to be proud of." 

After it became apparent the bill was dead, Simpson spoke before the House and openly criticized leadership in both chambers. With House Speaker Joe Straus, who just last week referred to the TSA bill as a publicity stunt, standing behind him, the outspoken Republican said he believed House leadership had thwarted his effort to stop the "routine" touching of private parts by federal agents. Though his comments were received with a collective groaning sound from lawmakers, Simpson was undeterred.

During his 15-minute speech, Simpson said he is "fed up with phonies" and politicians who take credit for bills they try to kill. He quoted Churchill by saying, "Never yield to force... never yield to the overwhelming might of the enemy." On the TSA legislation, he declared, "I'm not giving up." The Longview Republican didn't limit his views to the TSA issue. He launched an all-out critique of the state budget, which he accused of being filled with accounting tricks and nowhere near conservative enough. 

Immediately after Simpson finished, some members of the public sitting in the House gallery applauded his remarks before storming out of the room. "If you cowards don't protect us, we'll protect ourselves," screamed one man. 

While Simpson stole the show, the real anger in the body continued to be directed at the Senate. Lawmakers passed HB 79, a comprehensive judicial reorganization bill, but not without some direct hazing of the measure's Senate sponsor, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. Lawmakers had to remind members of the House that the bill had been in the works for six years and originated in the House. Just last night, the governor and the House blamed Duncan for stripping the sanctuary cities ban from SB 1. (The Senate promptly came to his defense). Today, Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, chastised Duncan for refusing to consider his amendment to HB 79 that would have banned Sharia law in Texas. Tensions reached a peak as State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst stood at the back microphone, launching into her own tirade against the Senate leaving the House hanging. A loud banging noise could be heard in the gallery, prompting Kolkhorst to say, "Am I about to be shot in the head?" 

With no major bills left on the agenda, Straus pounded the gavel around noon and declared the special session over. After praising the House for holding the line on a tax increase and setting an austere budget, Straus told reporters he did not take Simpson's comments too personally. He said every member of the House is entitled to an opportunity to speak and the version of the Senate bill Simpson championed simply came "too late" to pass. 

"I think he's disappointed," Straus said. "I've spent a lot of time over the past couple weeks trying to help him. I think that it's unanimous here in the House, the goal of making sure that our TSA employees are reasonable in their searches. It was the methodology and the specifics of his bill that a lot of House members thought needed work." 

Indeed, Simpson said he is already re-working HB 41 and drafting additional legislation that would require more training for TSA agents, whom he said lack the same skills as peace officers. He stood by his statements against the leadership, too. "It could have been done earlier," he said of the bill, which he claims had the votes to pass during the regular session before the Department of Justice intervened. To do all this, Simpson will have to be re-elected by his district. Today, he confirmed he will run for a second term. 

Straus was also asked about his future plans, and he responded that he filed the appropriate paperwork to run for a third term as speaker last month. He said he had not planned to start campaigning until the session adjourned. 

"Now that we're out of the called special session, it's time to get back to politics, but I think reading the mood of the members, which is a big part of my job, that it's time for everyone to take a couple weeks off, to reconnect with our families, to take vacations... and the time to realize that we've been here for 170 days and we all need a break," Straus said. 

Though conservative groups have encouraged lawmakers to withhold their so-called "pledge cards," Straus said he has never collected those cards himself, and does not plan to start doing it anytime soon. 

House Democratic leader Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, acknowledged members of her caucus were largely on the sidelines the past two days, watching the supermajority nearly fall apart. 

"It looks like a conflict from within. Their rhetoric is not sustainable," she told the Tribune. "However, Simpson actually made our argument when he said the budget is smoke and mirrors."

Now that both chambers have adjourned, Farrar predicts Texans will begin to see the effects of the public policy decisions made this session. 

"What we'll see in the interim is what cuts will do to the schools. You won't see a lot of people defending their decisions," Farrar said.