House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick at a Texas Legislative Budget Board meeting on December 1, 2016. Credit: Laura Skelding for the Texas Tribune

Underneath the surface of Republican politics in Texas lies a long-standing struggle between business conservatives and social conservatives. That second group has been stymied for years by its “practical” partners, who toss social issues aside when given the choice between ideology and economics.

They usually prevail, too, in the Texas Legislature.

An example is the so far successful business pushback on the “bathroom bill” that would bar transgender Texans from using public facilities that correspond with their gender identities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the legislative champion of the social conservatives, has found a crack in the wall, evidenced by the passage of a strong anti-“sanctuary cities” bill in the House – one that turned out to be satisfactory to a surprised and socially conservative Senate that had been anticipating a watered-down version from the more moderate House leadership.

House Speaker Joe Straus is only as strong as the business conservatives in the House and Senate, and they’re only as strong as the business interests in and around the Texas Capitol.

Here’s why that’s a crack in the wall, and why it’s got Patrick’s full attention: It suggests he is right, that the majority of the Texas House is more conservative – at least in full daylight – than its leadership. And that if you can get an issue to the floor, where members have to vote in full view of the public, you will get a different result – a result that’s more in line with the social conservatives who dominate the Republican primary electorate.

It’s not that Straus is out of sync with his members; in fact, he’s in his fifth term in that post because he protects them so well from their own primary voters.

It’s that Patrick is starting to figure out how to cut up the House’s well-established protection racket. If he can make them vote, he can get his way. He doesn’t have to convince anyone that his side is right.

He just has to force them to make their allegiances and positions public. Their fear of voter backlash takes care of the rest. In a legislative process where so many issues die quietly in committees and parliamentary deep eddies, making politicians attach their names to their positions can be a powerful thing.

The sanctuary cities bill tested the theory. Efforts to moderate that legislation worked all the way through the committee process, then were undone when members were asked, amendment by amendment, to take a stronger or a weaker position. The cameras were present. The voters – or the political consultants ready to talk to those voters, more accurately – were watching.

If social conservatives can find a way to get the bathroom bill to the full membership of the House – in the form, probably, of an amendment to another piece of legislation – they’ll have another chance.

Straus, with business support, has kept that one off the floor. Patrick has said openly that all he wants is a vote by the full House. He made his case for the bill earlier in the session; now he’s making a target of any Republican (and maybe some Democrats) who vote against it. If he can win on process, he’ll win on substance.

Social liberals are starting to work around the edges of this. Inspired by business backlash to North Carolina’s discrimination laws, they’ve started to work the economic arguments in Texas – the way business groups have typically done. The ACLU put up a travel ban after the sanctuary cities bill was signed into law. They’re making fun of anti-vaccination laws that have gained traction in the Legislature. Economic arguments have been their bulwark on the bathroom bills.

Perhaps they can’t persuade Texas Republicans to vote against social hot buttons. But if out-of-state businesses get shy about one of their favorite markets and relocation sites, Texas politicians might take notice. The liberals, who’ve been losing on these issues, are counting on it. So are the business conservatives, who are getting their butts handed to them by social conservatives. That’s not the norm in Texas, and as it turns out, business conservatives don’t like it. On issues where they’re paying attention, like the bathroom bill, they’ve been able, so far, to prevail. On issues that once topped their list but have fallen from their attention – sanctuary cities, for instance – they’ve been run over.

The make-them-vote ploy doesn’t always work; the House vote against using public money for private schools – the shorthand is “school choice” or “school vouchers” – was lopsided, in spite of support from Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott. Enough House members, and enough Republican voters, think those public subsidies are a lousy idea. Unlike sanctuary cities and bathrooms, vouchers are not an issue that cleanly splits business and social conservatives.

On issues that do, companies and business groups used to be in a winning position. Now they’re wobbling, and weak.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • As the Legislature grinds its way through the final three weeks of the regular session, the state’s top three leaders are pushing and shoving, figuratively speaking, to the finale and beyond — to the 2018 elections.
  • The Texas Legislature is moving into the part of the calendar when certain dates are circled in red. More bills are killed by clocks and calendars – by those circled deadlines – than by votes.
  • A Texas governor’s powers peak at the end of a legislative session, as deadline-haunted legislators begin to fear the threat of a veto from the state’s chief executive.

Ross Ramsey writes a regular column for The Texas Tribune, where he is executive editor.