LUBBOCK, Texas — Texas House Republicans are poised to show that the sanctity of unborn life is a matter they can compromise on in order to achieve legislative success on other issues in the coming Texas legislative session. The House Republicans are expected to choose a NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) favored candidate, current Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) over the pro-life challenger, Scott Turner (R-Frisco) in the race for Speaker of the Texas House. Pro-life Republicans make up a near two-thirds majority of the Texas House, which will take its first recorded vote when they convene on January 13, 2015 to select the Speaker of the House for the 84th Legislative Session. Straus is supported by House Democrats and pro-choice moderate Republicans, while Turner has been graded one of the most conservative members of the House, and has a reputation for supporting pro-life issues.
An accurate analysis of Straus’ record on pro-life issues requires going back several years, because since being elected Speaker in January 2009 he has not voted on any of the key bills that regulate abortion and related issues. Straus does, however, have votes that he took during the 2005 and 2007 sessions before becoming Speaker, as well as actions he has taken as Speaker on relevant legislation, that can be used to evaluate his record on abortion.
Among the votes that affect Straus’ score on pro-life issues is his vote for an amendment to a 2005 bill, SB 419, that would have made it easier to get a third trimester abortion and could have greatly expanded the authority of Texas abortion doctors. The original language of SB 419 allowed third trimester abortions only when the abortion was “necessary to prevent the death of the [mother]” or the fetus had a “severe, irreversible brain impairment.” Straus voted to expand the exemptions to allow third trimester abortions when there was a “substantial risk of serious impairment” to the mother or if the fetus had a “severe and irreversible abnormality.” In a previous Breitbart Texas article on the amendment and its author, State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas), Texas Right-to-Life Executive Director Elizabeth Graham spoke to Branch’s proposed amendment that Straus voted for. She said, ” [The bill] gave broader latitude to third-term abortions. Had Branch’s amendment passed, abortions would be allowed in the third trimester if the child suffered ’impairment of a vital organ,’ a judgment call that would have been made by the abortionist who makes a substantial profit off these late abortions.” Graham added, “And what exactly was meant by ‘impairment’ — diminished function? Temporarily slowed function? Function that could be improved or cured with treatment? The term was undefined, ambiguous at best, and left to the interpretation of the abortionist.”
During the 2013 Legislative Session, Straus did not allow a single pro-life bill to the floor during the Regular Session. It was only when Governor Rick Perry forced the issue by adding pro-life legislation to the first special session that Straus was forced to allow a floor vote on legislation affecting pro-life issues. Straus and his supporters countered that bills like HB 2 simply got entangled in the legislative process, but the fact is that the Speaker’s political capital was spent on giving other bills a higher priority to get through calendars and to the floor for a vote, ahead of HB 2.
Turner described the importance of the pro-life issue to Texas conservatives in an exclusive interview Friday with Breitbart Texas. “Texas is a state where the vast majority of our constituency wants pro-life legislation,” said Turner, “Not only on the call but also on the floor for a vote. This needs to be a priority, not something we have to go to Special Session for, but something we address during the Regular Session.” He commented that this was something that was personally “very important” to him. Turner vowed that if he were Speaker, he would use his political capital to make sure that pro-life legislation was brought for a vote. “Very simply, when members bring pro-life legislation to committee, I’d make sure that it receives a hearing,” said Turner, adding that he would work to shepherd bills through Calendars and “make sure that it can come to the floor for a debate and a vote.”
An added source of frustration for pro-life advocates is that if HB 2 had not been left so late in the first Special Session in 2013, Wendy Davis would have been unable to endure a filibuster long enough to kill the bill. Davis’ filibuster was the singular event that launched her as a national celebrity for liberals and made it possible for a previously unremarkable State Senator to conceive of running for Governor. In other words, but for the timing of the vote, Davis would have not been able to attempt a filibuster, and Texas could have been spared the drama of her negative campaign against Greg Abbott.
During the most recent election, Planned Parenthood did not endorse Straus or any of the Republican Representatives who have publicly endorsed him, but they have made positive comments in the past about Straus. Straus was thanked in 2009 after his first session as Speaker, by Jeffrey Hons, the President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Trust of San Antonio and South Central Texas, for his “tireless effort” in support of pro-choice issues, as verified by Politifact Texas. Straus also received a $1,000 donation from this local Planned Parenthood affiliate in 2008, the year before he became Speaker.
NARAL has also not included Straus on their list of endorsed candidates, but during Straus’ last session before becoming Speaker, 2007, he received a 100% rating from the pro-abortion group, as well as receiving recognition for authoring or co-sponsoring bills that they scored as pro-choice. NARAL gave him a 45% rating for the previous Session in 2005, with some of Straus’ votes on their key legislation scored as pro-life and some scored as pro-choice.
Straus is not included on the list of pro-life endorsements by Texas Right to Life for 2014, or in previous years dating back to 2008 as listed on the Project Vote Smart website. Again, all post-2009 evaluations are when Straus was Speaker and does not have a voting record that was scored, but the organization was still free to endorse him if they felt that he had acted as a pro-life champion in his leadership of the House. The organization had previously graded him at only 50% for his votes in 2005, the first year he was in the House.
In comparison, Texas Right to Life not only endorsed Turner in 2014, but awarded him a greater than perfect score for 2013, due to a perfect voting record on their scored votes and several bonus points for co-sponsoring several pro-life bills.
With the Democrats in the minority in the House, they cannot hope to elect one of their own to Speaker, and so the Democratic caucus has chosen to support Straus during the past few sessions over challengers viewed as more conservative.
Currently, the 2015 Texas House will be made up of 98 Republicans and 52 Democrats. Electing the next Speaker requires a simple majority, or 76 votes. If all Democrats stand behind Straus as they have in the past, then, to win re-election as Speaker, Straus needs only 24 Republicans to prioritize other issues before the pro-life values they have claimed, and vote for him.
Accordingly, the issue is within the control of House Republicans, who must determine if pro-life issues are important enough to oust the Speaker and replace him with a more pro-life leader who would be committed to bringing pro-life legislation to the floor of the House for a vote. To date, several House Republicans who ran their recent campaigns claiming to be strong pro-life candidates are essentially recognizing that Straus will likely remain as Speaker and therefore the other legislative issues they care about could be damaged if they vote against him. These House Republicans are, in essence, showing that the protection of the unborn is an issue that they are willing to compromise on in order to not lose political power and the ability to get other bills passed.
Follow Breitbart Texas Managing Director Brandon Darby on Twitter @brandondarby