Politics & Government

Texans, the presidency gone, worry about their clout

WASHINGTON — Texans like clout: having it, using it, throwing it around.

And for more than 50 years, Texans have been among the biggest players on the Washington scene — president, vice president, Senate leaders, House speaker, powerful committee chairmen, and Cabinet secretaries. That is, until now.

Democrat Barack Obama's presidential victory and solidified Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have left the red state of Texas, with its two Republican senators and GOP-majority House delegation, on the margins.

At least that's how it appears at first glance. But Texas Democrats say they are poised to have an impact.

"Texas will still have the third-largest Democratic delegation in terms of committee and subcommittee chairs, behind California and New York," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

Edwards, a "cardinal" by virtue of being the chairman of a powerful House appropriations subcommittee, is the most powerful and, in many ways, most visible Texas Democrat in Washington.

"We don’t have one 800-pound gorilla in our delegation, but we have a lot of aggressive, hard-working members," he said. "I think we're well-positioned to be influential."

There are 12 Democrats and 20 Republicans in the Texas delegation in the House for the 111th Congress. The Democrats include Silvestre Reyes of El Paso, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, and eight subcommittee chairmen.

Edwards, the Waco lawmaker who was on Obama's shortlist of running mates, said, "I hope my relationship with Obama and his team will be of help to my district and our state."

Edwards, like most Texas Democrats, still complains about the 2003 redistricting battle with then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which cost the state six Democratic seats and seniority that would have given Texas three committee chairmanships.

Martin Frost of Dallas, at Rules; Jim Turner of Crockett, at Homeland Security; and Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, at Agriculture, all of whom lost in 2004, would have given the state a huge advantage.

"Chet is a good guy and will have a lot of influence," Frost said. "But the reality is that Texas doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of clout that it used to have."

Although Texas may have eight subcommittee chairmen, Frost said, "it's not the same thing as having chairmen of full committees" who control the agenda.

A factor helping Texas is its role as a major fundraising state, ranking behind only California and New York. Texans contributed slightly more money to Obama than to Republican John McCain in the 2008 election cycle, $17.7 million to $17.6 million, respectively, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"Donations help the state," former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes said. "What helps the state are a lot of new faces in Texas that supported Obama." The new generation of Democrats, Barnes said, has made it "socially acceptable" to be a Democrat again in the Lone Star State.

Barnes hopes that if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, resigns next year to run for governor, Texans can be persuaded to elect a Democrat to serve with Republican John Cornyn.

But, for Edwards, the best strategy is to work harder with Texas Republicans, who, like Joe Barton of Arlington, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, are in strategic positions.

The Texas delegation's monthly breakfast, which includes the senators, is a must-go event. "It’s more important, not less, that Texans work together on a bipartisan basis," he said.