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Some Texas lawmakers see less appetite for divisive measures

AUSTIN — Texas’ last legislative session ended with one lawmaker threatening to shoot another after reporting Hispanic protesters to immigration agents, and corporate giants from Amazon to the NFL issuing warnings over a “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people.

More than a year later, comes a test: whether a humbling 2018 for Texas Republicans will soften one of the most conservative statehouses in the country.

The Texas Legislature returns Tuesday, and unlike places such as Colorado and Minnesota where Democrats seized control of legislative chambers in November’s midterm elections, Republicans remain firmly in power. They’re ringing in a 20th consecutive year of controlling every statewide office. But they also took their licks: Democrats flipped 14 seats in the Legislature, closing the gap.

Beto O’Rourke’s star-making challenge against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz at the top of the ticket propelled the upsets, igniting his own White House prospects and leaving Texas Republicans wobbled after their worst election in a generation.

Now after years of the Texas Capitol playing host to some of the nation’s biggest fights over abortion, immigration and anti-LGBT laws, some legislators in both parties foresee the midterm results and 2020’s high stakes as curbing the appetite for divisive bills that derailed past sessions and turned off voters in the state’s booming big cities.

The party in power after the 2020 election will draw new voting maps — an upper hand Republicans used last time to carve Texas into a 101-49 House supermajority in 2011. That advantage has since shrunk to 83-67.

“I think the voters made it clear what issues they want us focused on,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, who held onto his suburban district near Dallas, where the GOP lost five House seats. “Their message to Republicans, at least, was: Don’t compromise your values and your principles and beliefs, but focus on the big aspirational issues that keep Texas strong for a generation to come.”

During Texas’ most recent legislative session in 2017, Leach supported a contentious bill that would have required transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. The bill ultimately failed amid a backlash from Fortune 500 companies.

Now, Leach says, “I have not had anyone tell me” that issue needs to be a priority.

Across the U.S., Democrats picked up more than 330 statehouse seats in November, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Other states where Republicans absorbed big losses while maintaining legislative power include Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Already in Texas, there are hints of less turbulence on the eve of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s second term. Like many states, public school funding is the biggest issue singled out by both parties. Paying to help rebuild the Texas coast in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the nation’s most destructive storm since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is another task.

Of course, calls for bipartisanship and getting to the unflashy business of state governance ring eternal at the start of every legislative session. And some Republicans lawmakers had signaled to audiences of Texas conservative activists before the midterms that they would continue pushing bills on social issues, which would likely rekindle opposition with gay rights groups and big businesses.

The Texas Legislature is only at work for five months every two years, but reliably packs drama and spectacle into such a short amount of time. In 2003, Democrats fled the state to a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma to break quorum and stop a redistricting bill that cost them seats. A decade later, then-Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis staged a 13-hour filibuster to temporarily block a sweeping anti-abortion law, propelling her to a failed run for governor.

The last session saw Texas Republicans mostly at war with themselves. Abbott demanded the “bathroom bill,” though opponents included moderate House speaker, who is now leaving office.

All the while, Texas was passing one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on “sanctuary cities,” allowing police to ask people during routine stops whether they’re in the U.S. illegally. Tensions over the bill spilled into chaos on the session’s final day, when Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Latino protesters in the House gallery. Democratic state Rep. Poncho Nevarez angrily confronted Rinaldi, who later wrote on Facebook that he had warned Nevarez that he would “shoot him in self-defense.”

Rinaldi lost re-election to his Dallas-area district last year, and Navarez — re-elected to a fourth term in his district along the border with Mexico— says Republicans who push divisive bills this time do so at their own electoral risk.

“I think it’s going to be different. We went down a real dark path last session,” Nevarez said.

New foundation, Raising Wheels, raising awareness, help with accessibility
 Cassie L Smith  / 

Tiffany Elkins never imagined she would give a second thought to doorway width.

But it is of many accessibility matters the 42-year-old Belton mother continues to discover as her 6-year-old daughter, Molly Kate, gets older.

As Molly Kate grows, the struggle to lift her on a fairly regular basis is becoming increasingly difficult, but a new foundation aims to help ease that task.

The Raising Wheels Foundation selected the Elkins family as its first accessibility grant program recipient to help Molly Kate Elkins, who lives a life on wheels.

The grant, funded through community donations, will provide the family a “life assist table,” an accessibility aide that insurance does not cover, Raising Wheels founder and Executive Director Melissa Copp said. The organization had its first official fundraiser during the city’s Waco Wonderland event, and it already has an invitation to attend the next one, Copp said. She founded the organization last January, and it is “days away from” gaining 501©(3) nonprofit status with the IRS. The foundation has a board of five members from across Texas with backgrounds in various professions, Copp said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Jody and Melissa Copp with their sons Calan (left) and and Lawson in their Woodway home. The Copps created the Raising Wheels Foundation in an effort to connect other parents with accessibility resources.

‘Fixer Upper’

The foundation was the result of a blessing bestowed on her own family, Copp said.

They were featured in a season 5 episode of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” in which Chip and Joanna Gaines, with a guest appearance from Tim Tebow, renovated their home with accommodations for her boys, Calan, 10, and Lawson, 6. They were each diagnosed with a genetic condition, which only has a handful of confirmed cases worldwide, and use wheelchairs.

The show helped them connect with families across the world with a member who has the same, still-unnamed condition as her children. The families immediately started networking and sharing their knowledge since there is little research available on the condition, Copp said.

“Their life is actually not short of joy,” Copp said of her children. “They provide us nonstop joy. They really truly know the secret. They wake up every day, ‘What else are we going to do today?’ From day one they’ve been fighters.”

Lawson Copp (left) and his brother Calan race down the hallway of their Woodway home. Their parents, Melissa and Jody Copp, created the Raising Wheels Foundation to help others find accessibility resources.

Paying it forward

With the help they have received and the knowledge they have gained in the past decade, Copp said she and her husband, Jody, hope to share resources and help other families on their own journeys.

“We have gone through a 10-year battle with so many hardships,” she said. “We lived and breathed them. We’ve been able to live every day basically unlocking new hardships on a daily basis. … I had no idea it was this hard to live life on wheels. We’re definitely ready for the challenge to get a better accessible world for them and others.”

They have a life assist table similar to the one the foundation is getting for the Elkins, and it has helped them so much, they wish every family could have one, Jody Copp said. One of the foundation’s major goals is to raise money to help make homes more accessible in small ways that insurance companies will not pay for, he said.

The foundation’s other goals are to share educational resources and raise awareness, and to partner with businesses, schools and other entities to review accessibility options.

Elkins said she was unaware of many accessibility challenges before her daughter’s birth. Especially out in public, many sinks are inaccessible because Molly Kate’s wheelchair will not fit under them, and some doorways are not wide enough to roll through, she said.

She met Copp a few years ago, and connecting with other parents facing similar challenges has been a major help.

“The first two years were spent grieving over the things we knew she was not going to be able to do,” Elkins said. “But the past few years we’ve been able to focus on the things she can do and opportunities we can look for to allow her to do whatever she feels like doing. At times it’s frustrating, because we see so many barriers to accessibility, but it’s also given us a purpose I guess to help educate other people to know that when we speak out and educate others, it may help Molly Kate, but more importantly, it may help others as well.”

The new table will make daily tasks easier so the family can focus more on things that make Molly Kate smile, like cheerleading and bowling, Elkins said.

“She loves to smile. If you meet her one time you remember her smile,” she said. “She definitely has more friends than we do. Everybody knows her. She has a very sweet disposition, a very sweet smile. She loves balls and dolls, her two big things that she loves. She lights up a room for sure.”

Melissa Copp said she is excited about the new year and the opportunities that await in finding ways to bless other families to make the world accessible to everyone.

Wash ‘N Roll

Raising Wheels will hold a Wash ‘N Roll event from noon to 3 p.m. March 23 at Hope and Believe Therapy Clinic, 4900 Sanger Ave. Wheelchairs will get washed, parents will get pampered and the kids will roll out in style from the free community event. Copp said the foundation is seeking volunteers and sponsors for the event, and anyone interested can reach out at

With US leaving, rival powers seek to move into Syria's east

BEIRUT — The planned U.S. troop withdrawal opens up a void in the north and east of Syria, and the conflicts and rivalries among all the powers in the Middle East are converging to fill it.

The American decision to pull out its 2,000 troops has forced a reassessment of old alliances and partnerships. The Syrian government, the Kurds, Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey have all had a hand in the country’s nearly eight-year war — each in a way, fighting its own war for its own reasons within Syria. Now all of those conflicts play out in the territory being abandoned by the Americans, creating new tensions, potential chaos and bloodshed.

To reassure jittery allies, Washington sent national security adviser John Bolton to Israel on Sunday, where he said U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until IS militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected. The comments put the brakes on a withdrawal abruptly announced last month and initially expected to be completed within weeks. The announcement upset regional allies and Pentagon officials who disagreed with the assessment that IS was defeated.

“We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we’re doing it that quickly,” Trump told reporters in Washington Sunday.

Here is a look at what’s at stake.

The territory

The area up for grabs is around a third of Syria, forming a rough triangle. To the north is the border with Turkey, to the east the border with Iraq, and the third side is the Euphrates River. This was the heart of the Islamic State group’s foothold in Syria until the United States partnered with a Kurdish militia, creating a force of some 60,000 fighters —including some Syrian Arabs and Christian Assyrians — that wrested it away from the militants.

The territory is strategically important. For the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and its allies Russia and Iran, regaining it means re-establishing sovereignty. The territory was once the source of Syria’s wheat and barley, its dams generated electricity and it holds some of Syria’s richest oil resources. Without it, Assad will have a harder time with reconstruction and operating long term. For the same reasons, it’s been a source of income for the Kurdish militia.

For the Kurds, their hold gave weight to their long-sought goal of autonomy. For the U.S., the troop presence ensured American influence. Turkey sees Kurdish autonomy on its border as an existential threat and has vowed to prevent this, accusing the U.S. of empowering the militia Ankara says is linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

Assad and Russia

Without the Americans, the door opens for Assad and his Russian backers to move in.

“The only obstacle preventing Assad from gaining control of the east was the U.S. presence and the cover that it provided to the (Kurdish militia). With that gone ... there is simply no real challenge that would prevent the regime from re-establishing control over those areas,” said Ayham Kamel, of the Eurasia group.

Abandoned by the U.S., the Kurdish fighters are forced to move toward Russia and Assad for protection against their more feared enemy, Turkey. Their force, armed and equipped by the U.S.-led coalition, is unlikely to disappear. Instead, it is seeking an arrangement with Assad to continue operating as the government extends control over the territory.

Syrian officials boast that the withdrawal is a defeat to America. Controlling the east would help seal Assad’s victory in the civil war. The American move also accelerates a trend by Arab states to normalize relations with Assad, whom they shunned for years. The United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. and Saudi ally, recently reopened its embassy in Damascus.

Turkey vs. Kurds, Russia and Assad

Turkey’s military, along with some 15,000 allied Syrian rebel fighters, is poised to launch an offensive in the east to break Kurdish control over the border.

But an offensive risks creating friction with Russia. In particular, it could wreck a cease-fire agreement the two reached over Idlib, the northwestern province held by rebels and Islamic militants where Turkey has influence — enabling a Syrian government assault on the province. Russian and Turkish officials have been holding talks, trying to avert tensions.

“A massive Turkish operation is not in Russia’s interest. It destabilizes the situation, risks undermining Idlib agreements and talks on reconstruction. Plus, if Turkey decides to capture all of the Kurdish areas it will inevitably clash with Russia and Iran,” said Yury Barmin, a Russia analyst.

Turkey is equally concerned over the prospect of Syrian government control over the east. In the past, Damascus has used the Kurdish militia as leverage against Ankara and could do so again. For nearly 20 years, Syria hosted the main Kurdish leader until he was captured in 1998, now imprisoned in Turkey.

Iran and Israel

A Syrian government move east means the spread of Iran as well. It will dramatically widen the land corridor where Iran enjoys free rein for its allied fighters, weapons and supplies across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Already, Iranian-backed militias have expanded control over areas near Syria’s border with Iraq and freely cross back and forth.

That has alarmed Israel. The likely result will be increased Israeli airstrikes against suspected Iranian-linked targets in Syria.

US, Turkey and Islamic State Group

President Donald Trump dismissed the idea that the U.S. needs influence in the conflict, saying Syria was nothing but “sand and death.” He claims the U.S. mission there — to fight IS — has largely been completed. But IS still holds pockets and U.S.-led coalition officials warn it could surge again.

Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem that the conditions for a U.S. troop withdrawal include the defeat of remnants of IS in Syria, and protections for Kurdish militias who have fought alongside U.S. troops against the extremist group.

There has also been growing unrest among Arab tribes in the east, disgruntled by the Kurdish-led administration. They too are likely to be a source of tension and may be leveraged by the different players for their own advantages.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump his forces could take over fighting IS. In two previous offensives, Turkish forces and their Syrian allies retook territory in the northwest from IS and Kurdish fighters. But their track record of abuses, forced displacement of Kurds and lawlessness raises concern over whether they can exercise authority in the east.

“The force that Erdogan has to offer Trump to replace the (Kurdish militia) in eastern Syria is not large enough, locally legitimate enough, and quite frankly not vettable enough, for the standards of the U.S. military,” said Nick Heras, a Syria expert with the Center for a New American Security.

Trump says he needs to deal with Dem leaders to end shutdown

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump stood by his demands for funding for a border wall Sunday as another round of shutdown talks failed to break an impasse, while newly empowered House Democrats planned to step up the pressure on Trump and Republican lawmakers by passing legislation this week to reopen parts of the government.

Trump, who spent part of the day at Camp David for staff meetings, showed no signs of budging on his demand more than $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. White House officials affirmed that request in a letter to Capitol Hill after a meeting with senior congressional aides led by Vice President Mike Pence at the White House complex yielded little progress.

The letter from Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought also formalized Trump’s declaration that the wall would be built from steel, rather than concrete, asking for funding for a “steel barrier on the Southwest border.”

The White House said the letter, as well as details provided during the meeting, sought to answer Democrats’ questions about the funding request. Democrats, though, said the administration failed in both the meeting and the letter to provide a full budget of how it would spend the billions requested on the wall, money the president wants from Congress.

The letter includes a request for $800 million for “urgent humanitarian needs,” a reflection of the growing anxiety over migrants traveling to the border — which the White House said Democrats raised in the meetings. And it repeats some existing funding requests for detention beds and security officers, which have already been panned by Congress and would likely find resistance among House Democrats.

Still, the request makes clear a wall is a top priority. Vought writes that a “physical barrier — wall — creates an enduring capability that helps field personnel stop, slow down and/or contain illegal entries.”

Trump sought to frame a steel barrier as progress as he returned from the presidential retreat in Maryland, saying Democrats “don’t like concrete, so we’ll give them steel.” The president has already suggested his definition of the wall is flexible, but Democrats have made clear they see a wall as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed upon levels.

With the partial shutdown in its third week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she intends to begin passing individual bills to reopen agencies in the coming days, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure people receive their tax refunds. That effort is designed to squeeze Senate Republicans, some of whom are growing increasingly anxious about the extended shutdown.

The seemingly intractable budget showdown marks the first clash for Trump and Democrats, who now control the House. It pits Trump’s unpredictable negotiating stylings against a largely united Democratic front, as many Republicans watch nervously from the sidelines and hundreds of thousands of federal workers go without pay.

Although Trump tweeted that the Sunday session had been “productive,” two Democrats familiar with the meeting gave a different take, saying the White House had not provided the budget details they had requested and again declined to re-open government. One of the officials — neither was authorized to speak publicly — said no additional meetings were scheduled.

Trump said earlier in the day that he was hoping for “some very serious talks come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.” While insisting he wanted to make a deal, he also declared he would not give an inch in his fight for funding for a border barrier, saying: “There’s not going to be any bend right here.”

Among the Republicans expressing concerns was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should take up bills from the Democratic-led House.

“Let’s get those reopened while the negotiations continue,” Collins said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Democrats criticized McConnell for waiting on Trump’s support, but Collins said she was sympathetic to McConnell’s opposition to moving legislation without agreement from the president.

Several Republicans pushed the Interior Department to find money to restaff national parks amid growing concerns over upkeep and public safety. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested Sunday that pressure would only mount amid the shutdown, which he said is disrupting Transportation Security Administration operations, home loans and farmers in his state.

“Democrats and now a growing number of Republicans are coming together and saying let’s open up the government and debate border security separately,” Schumer said.

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that if the shutdown continues into Tuesday, “then payroll will not go out as originally planned on Friday night.”