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18 days that shook the Texas congressional delegation in 2017


By Abby Livingston

Attempted murder. National humiliation. Legislative victories and defeats. Confusion.

There has never been a year in Congress like 2017, and most there spent the last year adjusting to an erratic president and an even more volatile American public.

Some members from Texas contributed to the drama, while others tried to lay low and avoid the spotlight at all costs.

Here are the 18 days that shook the Texas delegation, and the members who lived it:

Jan. 20: President Trump is sworn into office

President Donald Trump took office as the 45th president of the United States and a new era in American politics began.

The night before, thousands of jubilant Texans – mostly Republicans who were eager to return to power – attended the Texas State Society Ball. "Any time there's a peaceful transfer of power, it's good," U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, said that night.

But not everyone was pleased.

Democratic members of Congress from Texas were split on whether to even attend the swearing in. Some, like Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Al Green of Houston, boycotted the ceremony as a matter of personal conscience, while others said attending was a duty of the job.

Jan. 21: The Women's March

A day later, the tone of Washington completely changed.

Hundreds of thousands of women marched through the capital city proclaiming opposition to Trump. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, was there in Washington along with dozens of other female members of Congress.

Back home, women filled the streets of Austin, Dallas and Houston. Even the most plugged-in Democratic insiders were perplexed by the turnout. Was it truly organic, organized by political laywomen, or were there organizing forces behind it?

The former appears to be true – setting the tone of a new era feminism and a bottom-up political activism that took hold for the rest of the year.

Jan 29: Trump implements travel ban

On the second weekend of the Trump administration, the president implemented an executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Texas members watched in shock as the disorganized execution of the abrupt policy shift led to people stranded and detained at airports across the country. Democrats and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, reacted with fierce criticism.

But most Texas Republicans watched on in silence.

The weekend set the table for what was ahead: Congress would spend much of the rest of the year scrambling to react to surprise chaos.

March 2: The U.S. Senate confirms Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy

While Rick Perry continued to serve as Texas governor for years after his infamous 2011 “oops” gaffe, much of the nation had not moved on from that moment. After his tenure as governor ended in 2015, a stint on Dancing With the Stars only furthered his image as a less-than-serious politician. But his return to the national stage during his confirmation hearing was that of a studious nominee. The Senate rewarded him with a bipartisan 62-37 confirmation vote.

Yet in the volatile Trump era, Perry has mostly served as an afterthought. His fellow Texan, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is a subject of far more intrigue. The reviews on Perry’s tenure this far are mixed – but his Senate confirmation suggested that the political world had finally moved on from his 2011 embarrassment.

March 29: Beto O’Rourke runs for Senate

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a relatively obscure third-term Democrat from El Paso, threw his hat in the ring to take on U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. O’Rourke, who pledged he wouldn't take PAC money or allow pollsters to shape his messaging, spent the year blanketing every pocket of the state – even the conservative strongholds.

Democrats in Washington would love to take down Cruz, but their priority heading into 2018 is defending their own incumbents elsewhere in the country. Cruz is postured to blast O’Rourke with an organizational and fundraising juggernaut, and in-state Republicans insist: Texas is still Texas.

Can O’Rourke win in 2018? The conventional wisdom is probably not. But stranger things happened in 2017.

April 6: Mike Conaway takes over House investigation into Russian election interference

For years, U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland was something of a quiet power player – and mostly unknown to the public. A CPA by training, he built up a reputation as a diligent investigator of ethical wrong-doing in his party’s campaigns and within Congress.

A longtime member of the House Intelligence Committee, his national profile rose after leadership called on him to take over an investigation that had spiraled into dysfunction under House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California.

The investigation continues to stumble – particularly when Nunes enters the fray - but Conaway has proved to be a soothing presence and calmed the waters with Democrats.

He is one of several Texans serving on intelligence committees – U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep Will Hurd were appointed to the Senate and House committees earlier in the year.

On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro uses his own post on the committee to hammer away at the Trump administration on cable news.

April 7: U.S. Senate confirms Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court

The consequences of the U.S. Senate confirmation of Gorsuch will be long-lasting. 

Following U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia's death in Texas last year, the extended political debate leading up to Gorsuch's confirmation poisoned the well with Democrats, who continue to cry foul that the Republican-majority Senate refused to hold hearings for former President Obama’s nominee for the seat.

Then, Senate Republicans changed the rules to allow for a simple-majority confirmation for Gorsuch. Both Cornyn and Cruz supported him in the vote.

 But the longest-lasting effect is likely to be Gorsuch himself. At 50, he is a young justice, likely poised to influence court decisions for decades to come.

May 17: Robert Mueller is appointed special counsel into the Russia investigation

With Washington aflame over President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, there was increasing pressure on Congress to expand its investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mueller, a revered former FBI director, took over the investigation for the Justice Department. Texas members from both parties immediately praised the appointment.

Democrats were clearly eager to learn what happened, and Republicans privately suggested the special counsel would take some of the pressure off of Congress on the volatile issue.

June 14: Texas Republicans escape a shooter at baseball practice.

A pleasant morning morphed into a nightmare for members of the Republican Congressional baseball team, as a politically deranged gunman unleashed gunfire on members and staffers alike in suburban Virginia.

Conaway was there, as were U.S. Reps. Roger Williams of Austin and Joe Barton of Ennis.

Players jumped on Barton’s young son to protect him. Williams suffered an ankle injury as he dove into the dugout and one of his own staffers was seriously injured. 

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, left just minutes before the shooting began, but spent the rest of the day at the hospital watching over his injured friend and roommate, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

July 28: GOP health care overhaul dies in the U.S. Senate

With a turn of a thumb, U.S. Sen. John McCain killed a Republican attempt to dismantle former President Obama’s 2010 health care law.

The move capped seven months of GOP efforts, which included various Texans whipping votes, negotiating and trying to cut deals, including Cornyn, Cruz, Brady and U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess of Lewisville.

Aug. 25: Hurricane Harvey hits Texas

It’s a rare sight to see the swaggering Texas delegation brought to its knees, but Texans returned to Congress this fall subdued and looking for federal government support as the state reeled from the disastrous storm.

There remains tension with northeastern members, who remember Texas Republicans voting against federal aid in the aftermath of the 2012 superstorm Sandy. And tempers have flared between the delegation and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Despite rank and power in numbers, the Texas delegation still struggles to secure funding to rebuild months later.

Oct. 31, Nov. 2, Nov. 7, Nov. 13: Texans rush to retire from Congress

U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson of Richardson came out early this year to announce his retirement. And O'Rourke announced plans to run for U.S. Senate. But otherwise, for 10 months, the Texas political class wondered: Will anyone else hang it up? 

And then the floodgates opened beginning on Halloween, with U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, announcing his retirement. That was soon followed by U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, Ted Poe, R-Houston and Gene Green, D-Houston. Barton would soon follow due to a personal scandal.

Texas is on track to lose at least 156 years of Congressional seniority. But with challengers of every stripe coming out of the woodwork to run for the newly open seats, it's near-certain that the new delegation in 2019 will be less white and less male.

Nov. 22: Nude photo of Joe Barton makes the rounds of the internet

While Congress was on Thanksgiving recess, the unthinkable happened: a nude photo of a senior member was posted on the internet.

Texas Republicans were stunned and wondered what the implications would be for the apparent victim, Barton. The dean of the delegation apologized for infidelity, and at first blush he was lumped into the national conversation of sexual misconduct.

But some in Congress – even die-hard liberals – privately expressed sympathy for Barton.

The whole incident concerned many in the political class. The notion that a member of Congress could be a revenge porn victim led many political insiders to wonder if American political discourse had crossed a new and darker threshold. 

Even so, Barton lost local political support back home and with some members of the delegation. After Thanksgiving, he reluctantly announced his retirement.

Dec. 17: U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold retires from Congress

The late-fall uproar over sexual harassment in prominent workplaces brought down Farenthold, who had previously survived allegations of inappropriate conduct in his office. The Corpus Christi Republican was but one of many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who saw their political careers essentially die over night amid harassment charges. The Capitol entered the Christmas holiday on edge – wondering who would fall next.

Dec. 20: The Republican tax overhaul passes both chambers

After a year of legislative disappointment, Congress passed the largest overhaul of the American tax code in a generation. The tax cuts were controversial – they're likely to run up the national deficit to newer heights – but two Texans were credited with effectively moving the bill: Brady, the U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman, and Cornyn.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune 

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