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Texas Freedom Caucus' Tactics Anger Many State Lawmakers


A shoving match that included death threats between state lawmakers in Texas went viral this week. But before things got physical in the Capitol, the politicians working there were already angry, and some put the blame on a small group of conservative lawmakers. From member station KUT in Austin, Ben Philpott reports.

BEN PHILPOTT, BYLINE: They call themselves the Texas Freedom Caucus. The name, of course, is inspired by the group of far-right conservatives in the U.S. House who have played an oversized role in running Congress. And just like at the federal level, the 12 members of the Texas caucus have shifted the debate in the Texas House to the right.


JONATHAN STICKLAND: This discussion and my opposition to this bill has been on one simple thing - whether this should be handled by the government or should be handled by communities and individuals.

PHILPOTT: That's Republican State Representative Jonathan Stickland. The caucus ties all of its arguments to freedom, liberty and limited government. There are similar groups popping up in legislatures across the country, and their principles play well on the campaign trail in deep-red states like Texas. But Republican State House member Jason Villalba says it makes governing harder.

JASON VILLALBA: That sounds great in a soundbite, but in the end, what does that mean? That means that people aren't getting school lunches and that research isn't being done and that schools aren't funded and that children go hungry. That's what that means.

PHILPOTT: And the tactics used by the Texas Freedom Caucus have angered many lawmakers. First, the caucus used legislative rules to kill off uncontroversial bills. Then it was on to amending major legislation with far-right principles. That pushed lawmakers to a simmering boil. Then, when a bill on immigration and local law enforcement came up, Freedom Caucus member Matt Schaefer added a provision to allow anyone detained by police to be questioned about their immigration status.


MATT SCHAEFER: That when the police are doing their work and as part of that they are inquiring into this person's identity and they learn that the person has, for instance, a federal detainer, that they can honor that.

PHILPOTT: For Democrats, it was the breaking point. That anger fueled this week's skirmish on the House floor when a member of the Freedom Caucus told Hispanic Democrats he had called federal immigration officials on protesters at the Capitol. Some fellow Republicans also complained about the group. But in the end, the vast majority have voted with the Freedom Caucus. State Rep Jason Villalba did so less enthusiastically because it meant taking votes that could be used against him in the primaries.

VILLALBA: And the primaries are going to be voted by people who are very strident in their political beliefs, and so you have to be careful that you don't offend the primary voters even though the people at large probably aren't in favor of something.

PHILPOTT: Villalba says the drive for ideological purity will make it tougher for more moderate Texas Republicans to win re-election. And in a brief moment of bipartisanship, Democrats agree. They're hoping the Freedom Caucus' tactics will help them win seats in 2018. For NPR News, I'm Ben Philpott in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Philpott covers politics and policy for KUT 90.5 FM. He has been covering state politics and dozens of other topics for the station since 2002. He's been recognized for outstanding radio journalism by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters and twice by the Houston Press Club as Radio Journalist of the Year. Before moving to Texas, he worked in public radio in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and at several television stations in Alabama and Tennessee. Born in New York City and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Philpott graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in broadcast journalism.