AUSTIN, Texas — A special legislative session in Texas ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott began Tuesday with loud protests over a revived “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people, renewed hostilities about a crackdown on immigration and GOP infighting that could keep demands of influential social conservatives again out of reach.
Frustrations ratcheted quickly in a likely sign of things to come over the next 30 days, during which Abbott says he will be “establishing a list” of who’s with him and who’s not.
Conservatives in the state Senate upended decades of precedent by swiftly advancing a regulatory bill that must pass before the Legislature can work on anti-abortion measures, school vouchers and defanging local ordinances in Texas’ big and liberal cities. Democrats chafed at the break in protocol but only were able to stall it for about an hour. Later, in the sweltering heat outside the Texas Capitol, many joined protesters in denouncing Abbott’s determination to pass 20 measures this summer that would nudge America’s biggest red state even further rightward.
Most attention is on Texas’ version of the “bathroom bill” that’s similar to what North Carolina passed last year, only to partially repeal it following economic and political backlash. Corporate behemoths including Apple, Amazon and AT&T are continuing to pressure Abbott to reject a bill that collapsed in May under opposition from the moderate Republican House leader who called it bad for the state’s economy.
There are no signs of House Speaker Joe Straus budging this time, which means the proposal’s second chance is already on shaky ground. That fact has widened a rift with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the powerful conservative Senate leader, whose escalating criticism of Straus has included comparing an ambitious but previously stalled House school funding measure to a Ponzi scheme.
A young girl holds a sign as protesters gather on the steps of the Texas Capitol while State lawmakers begin a special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Immigrant rights groups plan to increase protests of the new law that allows police to inquire about peoples’ immigration status, while LGBT activists bitterly oppose “bathroom bill” proposals. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urged protesters in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994 to spend the next month fighting.
“I don’t understand your state because I thought a special session meant there were extraordinary circumstances,” Perez told a crowd of a few hundred people. Standing nearby was former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who lost the governor’s race to Abbott by 20 points in 2014.
Abbott launched his re-election campaign Friday with nearly $41 million already on hand and no Democratic opponent in sight. He is taking a more aggressive posture for the special session after facing criticism for staying on the sidelines earlier. Speaking at a conservative think tank in Austin on Monday, Abbott made clear he was watching.
“I’m going to be establishing a list. You all, or other organizations, may be establishing a list,” Abbott said during the Texas Public Policy Foundation event. “We all need to establish lists that we publish on a daily basis and call people out. Who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position. No one gets to hide.”
His comments were aimed at Republicans, since Democrats are too outnumbered to block any legislation on their own. One Democrat filed a bill to repeal a “sanctuary cities” ban signed in May that lets police ask people during routine stops whether they’re in the U.S. legally.
The repeal effort has no chance of passing but the ban, known as SB4, continues stirring tensions. On the final day of the regular session in May, Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi said he reported protesters in the Capitol holding signs suggesting they were in the country illegally to federal immigration agents. He then was involved in a scuffle in which a Democratic lawmaker admitted he pushed the Republican and Rinaldi responded by saying he would use a gun in self-defense if needed.
Things stayed civil Tuesday and both chambers adjourned after less than two hours of work. Lawmakers could as quickly as Wednesday pass the regulatory bill needed to keep some state offices running before taking up more contentious issues.
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