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Four years in, the Freedom Caucus finds a less contentious role in the Texas House

The state Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Four years ago, the hardline conservative Texas Freedom Caucus left an unmistakable mark on its debut session by orchestrating a “Mother’s Day Massacre,” using procedural maneuvers to kill over 100 House bills en masse and express their disapproval with their chamber’s Republican leadership.

As the 2021 session gets underway, though, the group that prompted tears and outrage that night is not the same. Only five of the caucus’s original 12 members are left — and the group that remains is pointing to a much different relationship with the rest of the chamber.

The caucus’s members have increasingly shown a willingness to work with — rather than against — other Republicans, at least compared to that 2017 session when they were adamantly organized against the moderate GOP speaker at the time, Joe Straus. That has won them new allies in the House, while also causing internal splintering that has played out in public and in private.

Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler, who served as the caucus’ first chair and remains a member, said the group’s mission has not changed — “amplifying the voice of conservative grassroots Texans” — but acknowledged its approach may have evolved since that heady 2017 debut.

“We have been perhaps more focused in our efforts the last few years,” Schaefer said. As the caucus’ third session gets underway, Scahefer added, “I think that our relationships with our colleagues in the House are as good as they’ve ever been. I think you’re gonna see Freedom Caucus members put in positions of influence this session, and we continue to have an influence on the conversation about policy.”

The caucus’ clout could be revealed as soon as this week, when House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, is expected to release committee assignments.

"The Texas House is stronger when everyone has a seat at the table, and I am making it a priority to ensure every representative can represent their district and principles faithfully,” Phelan said in a statement for this story. “Every Member will have the opportunity to advocate for the issues they’re passionate about during this unprecedented session."

The caucus formed in the opening weeks of the 2017 session, promising to serve as the conduit between activists and Austin. While members like Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, already had reputations as troublemakers, the group as a whole made its first big wave on the Thursday night before Mother’s Day in 2017. Caucus members said they were fighting back against “petty personal politics” when they took advantage of a key midnight deadline to kill the more than 100 bills. Their colleagues in both parties were furious.

In the process, the maneuver killed a must-pass bill keeping open several state agencies, making it likely lawmakers would need to return for a special session that summer. And that is what happened, much to the satisfaction of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had already been eyeing an overtime session to get another stab at his favored hard-right legislation — and who had reportedly called the caucus the night of the “Mother’s Day Massacre” to offer encouragement.

Straus announced that fall he would not seek reelection and left his caucus antagonists with a parting message, saying in a TV interview at the time that they are “never going to be running the show here as long as they’re self-limiting the way they are.”

What a difference four years makes.

Rep. Mayes Middleton of Wallisville, who chairs the caucus, told the Tribune this week that he feels “really good about this session” — in part because “conservatives had a huge role” in supporting Phelan’s bid for speaker.

Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park said caucus members currently “have a great relationship with the Speaker and his office,” and that Phelan “has put together a good team made up of several people for whom I would consider to be conservative.”

Another lawmaker in the caucus, Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano, said the group has a “much more friendly” relationship with leadership than it did in 2017 and that it is “drastically different.” And Schaefer put it this way: “If somebody from the speaker’s office contacted us under Straus, we wondered what we were in trouble for. Now if the speaker’s office calls us, it’s just natural course of business.”

House Republicans outside the caucus have taken notice.

“Since 2017, it seems to me that the Freedom Caucus has begun focusing more on offense (doing the difficult work of actually passing conservative legislation) instead of just playing defense by working to kill bills,” Rep. James Frank of Wichita Falls told the Tribune.

Membership 

The caucus is beginning the 2021 session with eight members, five of whom were part of the group’s dozen founders in 2017: Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Valoree Swanson of Spring, Schaefer, Shaheen and Cain. The three newer members of the group — Steve Toth of The Woodlands, Cody Vasut of Angleton and Middleton — won election in either 2018 or 2020.

The defections have been notable. Just before the 2019 session, Jeff Leach of Plano left the caucus and urged unity in the GOP caucus as Straus' successor as speaker, Dennis Bonnen, prepared to take over. Months later, Stickland resigned from the caucus, telling colleagues at the time he was recommitting himself “to the grassroots as a clear voice in the Texas House.” Roughly two months later, Stickland announced he would not run for reelection in 2020.

Since then, two others — Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg — have also left the group. They left the caucus on the same day in October, and while Tinderholt has not stated publicly his reasons for leaving, Biedermann cited differences over the speaker’s race.

In perhaps another sign of the changing dynamic, two of the most outspoken hardline conservative new members of the Texas House — Jeff Cason of Bedford and Bryan Slaton of Royse City — did not join the group.

Slaton said in a statement for this story he has “made it clear to every member” he’s spoken with that his “priority this session is delivering conservative results,” and that he would “work with any member, regardless of what group they are in, to advance conservative policies.”

“Most of the Freedom Caucus have made it clear they want to work together,” he said, “several have made it clear they do not.”

Asked about Cason and Slaton, caucus members declined to comment on issues of membership. But Schaefer said they were “two very conservative members who have their way of approaching policy, and I expect we’ll be working with them on many issues.”

“There’s certainly no tension there,” Schaefer said.

Cason and Slaton have already made names for themselves as the only two votes against Phelan for speaker on the first day of the session. And among the caucus’s recent departures, Biedermann has caused a stir with his bill to ask voters if they want Texas to explore secession, a proposal that one former caucus member — Leach — has condemned.

Less than a month into the session, Slaton has already been met with some resistance in efforts to push the House further to the right. As the House was debating its rules the first week it convened, Slaton offered an amendment that would have allowed only members from the chamber’s majority party to serve as committee chairs — a change that would have broken with House tradition.

To the surprise of some, it was a Freedom Caucus member — Cain — who stepped forward to speak out against the idea.

“To be honest, there’s a lot of my Democrat colleagues here that I’d much rather have chairing certain committees than some of my Republican colleagues,” he said. “Believing that doesn’t make me any less conservative.”

Priorities 

Last week, the caucus unveiled its legislative priorities, a wide-ranging agenda organized into a dozen categories addressing issues such as abortion, gun rights and monument protection.

The priorities include several items that are likely to make real progress this session, such as fighting local efforts to “defund the police” and ensuring “election integrity,” both of which Gov. Greg Abbott designated as top-priority emergency items in his State of the State speech Monday.

The caucus’ priorities also include banning the use of taxpayer dollars on lobbying, one of the big pieces of unfinished GOP business from last session. The caucus could have particular visibility on that issue — Middleton is carrying the legislation.

The caucus agenda also reflects an issue that it became outspoken about last year: curbing the governor’s emergency powers. While it remains to be seen how open Abbott is to that, it has become a topic of discussion among a far broader group of lawmakers than just the Freedom Caucus, and the governor briefly alluded to the debate in his State of the State speech.

"I've spoken with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and I think the appetite for executive power reform and empowering the Legislature, really restoring the check of the Legislature, is nearly unanimously supported,” Vasut said at the news conference where the caucus announced its priorities.

Middleton opened the news conference by claiming conservatives had a mandate after the November election, when Republicans held off a massive Democratic offensive to keep their House majority even at 83 members. Speaking with the Tribune days later, Middleton took a longer view of his caucus’ place in chamber history.

“Maybe our quotes at the mic will be forgotten, but the freedoms we fight for will last,” he said. “At the end of the day, every single one of us is going to end up on those [photo] composites in the [Capitol] basement, but what we’re fighting for is the liberty that will live on long past we’re here.”