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In Texas, One Republican Lawmaker Is Trying To Halt The Bathroom Bill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Texas Republicans are trying again to pass a bill that would restrict access to public bathrooms for transgender people. But in a state dominated by Republicans, one of its legislature's most powerful members is trying to stop the bathroom bill. Ben Philpott of member station KUT in Austin reports on a party that's divided over how to govern.

BEN PHILPOTT, BYLINE: Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has made himself enemy number one among the state's most conservative voters. His crime? His management style.

JOE STRAUS: I try to encourage cooperation. I try to encourage bipartisanship. And I know that's not a very fashionable thing today.

PHILPOTT: It's not just unfashionable. For some Republicans, it's downright treasonous. When Straus focuses on bipartisan efforts like a plan to increase public school funding, he's attacked by some for doing so at the expense of, quote, "real conservative priorities." State House member Matt Schaefer is one of those critics.

MATT SCHAEFER: There's a growing number of conservatives in the House that don't understand why Speaker Straus is blocking a conservative agenda.

PHILPOTT: That line, blocking a conservative agenda, may sound familiar. From Republican senators who blocked a repeal of Obamacare to fights in Republican state legislatures around the country, votes against the party line have brought a swift and often angry response. Straus has always said that if something doesn't come up for a vote in the Texas House it's because the bill didn't have enough support. But he admits he has blocked some legislation.

STRAUS: I use the office and the authority that the members have given to me on occasions where I think it's necessary. This bathroom bill is a perfect example of that.

PHILPOTT: The bill is also a perfect example of the divisions among Republicans and the business interests that have backed the GOP over the years. And in Texas, those business leaders want nothing to do with the bathroom bill. That's because of what happened in North Carolina. A similar bill there led to consumer boycotts. Some companies even avoided investing in the state. Straus quotes from a recent editorial from a North Carolina newspaper.

STRAUS: Why would Texas, after seeing the example in North Carolina, want to walk headfirst into a giant cactus? And I think it's a good question. And I hope we don't go there.

PHILPOTT: But the governor, lieutenant governor, state Senate and some in the House do. Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin. He says that tug of war between activists and business groups shows up in Straus' record as speaker.

JIM HENSON: What you see is an ability to balance what different factions of the Republican Party want while acknowledging that, you know, some of the issues that he may not put at the top of his list are at the top of Republican primary voters' lists.

PHILPOTT: Here's an example. Straus points to business groups and law enforcement when explaining his opposition to the bathroom bill. But those same groups were opposed to another key Republican bill Straus did pass this spring.

HENSON: The House delivered anti-illegal immigration and border security measures that are the most important issues for Republican primary voters in the state, full stop.

PHILPOTT: But right now it's all or nothing for most conservative Republicans. Passing an anti-sanctuary cities bill is great, but unless Straus passes the bathroom bill, nothing else he's done matters. And Representative Schaefer says that's what voters will focus on in primary elections in 2018.

SCHAEFER: Are you with Lieutenant Governor Patrick and Governor Abbott? Or are you with Joe Straus, who's blocking a conservative agenda? He's really making it simple for people to understand.

PHILPOTT: Straus and members of the Texas Legislature have two weeks to pass a bathroom bill and settle the question of who's leading Texas Republicans - the business-friendly wing or its conservative activists. For NPR News, I'm Ben Philpott in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.