The lieutenant governor's rhetoric on the border is shifting, and it could mean a split with House Speaker Joe Straus.
Update: House Speaker Joe Straus released a statement that coolly responds to Patrick’s presser and seems to imply there’s more distance between Abbott and Patrick than the latter would like:
“I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.”
Original: At a press conference today, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pledged to continue the National Guard deployment for as long as it took to “secure the border.” Flanked by members of the Senate Republican Caucus, Patrick spoke for just six minutes, and took no questions.
The deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops last summer was originally intended to be a temporary response to the influx of Central American minors, and the Legislature only arranged funding through the end of March. But Patrick wants to make them a permanent feature of the state’s border security regimen—his plan would continue funding for the Guard presence through 2017.
His high-profile push for the border security funding could be an attempt to win positive headlines even as the legislative priorities he laid out in his primary campaign—like ending the Texas DREAM Act and doing something about so-called “sanctuary cities”—seem to have vanished from his legislative agenda, at least for the moment. And it could be a way to prepare for a fight with House Speaker Joe Straus, whose caucus would seem to be less eager about the National Guard deployment than Patrick’s senators.
Patrick said the National Guard deployment had been effective in slowing border traffic. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, apprehensions of people crossing the border is down by about two-thirds in the Rio Grande Valley Sector—a small but active stretch of South Texas—since the border surge started, though that’s a bit like saying that a river is dry because it is only running a third as high as it did when it experienced its greatest flood in modern history.
In fact, the tapering off of the surge of unaccompanied minors is more suitably attributed to a variety of other factors. (Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst had tried to take credit for the drop as well.)
But for Patrick, the crisis goes on.
“However, as the director of the Department of Public Safety said in a report, the border is still not secure,” Patrick said today. “And we know it’s not secure because the federal government is shirking from their responsibilities of doing so.”
So Texas would continue to take charge. “Because of their success, now is not the time to remove the National Guard from the border,” Patrick said.
Patrick explained he would work with the governor and speaker to commit the $12 million needed to keep the National Guard on the border from the end of March through the end of May, at which time the Legislature should have a supplemental funding bill in place to cover the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in August.
Meanwhile, the Senate budget proposal includes $815 million for border security efforts for the 2016-2017 biennium. Patrick boasted that the proposed funding was the “highest level in history.” The House budget proposal kept border funding flat, at less than half of the Senate proposal.
Patrick told the press his sources told him that drug cartels are ramping up for a National Guard withdrawal, and predicted that another “spring and summer surge” of migrants, like the one last year, was imminent. Doing anything less than his plan would be hopelessly careless. He struck a defiant tone.
“The Republican Senators standing behind me of the Texas Senate are united and committed to doing everything possible to keep Texas and America safe from terrorists who many believe have already crossed the border,” Patrick said. “From drug cartels to the criminal gangs who bring crime to our state.”
Patrick got elected in large part through his fierce and fiery border rhetoric. It was his core issue, one he hammered ad nauseum at every tea party meeting and rally he attended in the state. His style—he described illegal immigration as an “invasion,” and had warned in the past of immigrants spreading third-world diseases such as leprosy and tuberculosis—seemed capable of getting him in serious trouble, but Democrats were never able to tie him down on it.
Since he’s gotten elected, though, he’s taken a different tack. In the past, he’s told crowds that repealing the Texas DREAM act, which allows undocumented Texas residents who graduated from state high schools to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, would be one of his top legislative priorities, but it vanished from his rhetoric once he took the gavel, and no serious effort has yet materialized to do away with it.
Emphasizing the National Guard deployment is a way to deliver red meat to his border-fearing constituents without having to take serious political risks, or push an agenda that’s doomed to fail in the House or by way of the governor’s veto pen. It mirrors his attempt to feed gun-rights activists a consolation prize by emphasizing his support for campus carry, instead of open carry bills.
It also foreshadows what will become one of the major story-lines this session: Disputes between Straus’ House and Patrick’s Senate. In December, Straus was part of a legislative troika, which alsoincluded former Gov. Rick Perry and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, which kept funding for a DPS presence at the border through August but ended funding for the guard deployment in March.
“I did not have a say in that decision, nor did Gov. Abbott,” Patrick emphasized.
He repeated over and over that he stood in perfect unity with the governor’s office, but didn’t have much to say about Straus.
“I’ve spoken to Gov. Abbott on multiple occasions and we stand shoulder to shoulder in a commitment to border security. The governor and the Senate will have a comprehensive border security plan that we’re committed to passing this legislative session,” Patrick said.
The governor’s office and his senate, Patrick seemed to be saying, were like the two unified parents of a wayward child.
“The Senate stands behind [Abbott] and I stand behind him,” Patrick said again. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.” The senators behind Patrick applauded as he hurried out of the room.