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Who is Pete Sessions and why is he running for House Speaker?


Who is Pete Sessions and why is he running for House Speaker?

Oct 23, 2023 | 12:16 pm ET
By Matthew Choi
Who is Pete Sessions and why is he running for House Speaker?
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, speaks at a rally in College Station on Oct. 28, 2020. Sessions, then a candidate to return to the U.S. House, joined U.S. Sen. John Cornyn at the campaign stop, part of the senator's statewide bus tour. (Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, is running for House speaker, bringing with him decades of experience in the chamber and a record of winning seats for his party.

Sessions, 68, is still far from the favored candidate within the conference. Nine Republicans are running for the seat left vacant by the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. While there is no immediately obvious candidate who can secure the 217 votes needed, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota is the highest-ranking candidate and has McCarthy’s endorsement.

Sessions is the only Texan in the mix. House Budget Chair Jodey Arrington of Lubbock and House Small Business Chair Roger Williams of Willow Park expressed interest in running last week but ended up deciding against it.

All of the candidates will make their cases to the rest of their fellow Republicans in a forum Monday evening. The Republican conference will vote Tuesday morning on its nominee, who will go before the full House at an unscheduled date.

Who is Sessions?

Of all the speaker candidates, Sessions has been in Congress the longest. He was first elected in 1996 to represent eastern Dallas and its suburbs but lost that seat in a competitive race against Rep. Colin Allred in 2018. He ran again the next cycle to represent the Waco-based 17th District and returned to Congress in January 2021.

Representing Waco was a homecoming for Sessions. He was born and raised in the city. His father, William Sessions, was FBI director during the 1993 Branch Davidian siege.

Sessions’ 2018 loss to Allred was a major upset during a wave of Democratic victories in swing districts that were largely a response to then-President Donald Trump. Allred’s supporters still highlight his victory that year as he runs against Sen. Ted Cruz this year.

But Sessions also has a record of winning. Sessions led the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign apparatus, when the party won control of the House in 2010. Republicans won a net increase of 63 seats that year, a record. That election helped usher in a new era of Tea Party-aligned Republicans dead-set on stopping then-President Barack Obama’s agenda. Obama lamented the election at the time as a “shellacking.”

Emmer is also a former NRCC chair but he failed to deliver the same kind of red wave during last year’s midterm elections. The House speaker plays a major role in delivering resources for their party’s candidates.

Sessions also chaired the House Rules Committee from 2013 to 2019. Often dubbed the “speaker’s committee,” the body controls how and what legislation gets moved to the full House.

How has he voted on Texas priorities?

Sessions’ voting record is in line with most House conservatives. He voted against the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, gun safety legislation led by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the wake of the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde. He is also ardently against abortion and voted against legislation to codify same-sex marriage last year.

Sessions is a fiscal hawk and voted against lifting the debt ceiling last spring, even though doing so was necessary to stave off a default on the nation’s debt. Still, he voted for the temporary spending measure to keep the government funded and prevent a government shutdown in September. That bill allows Congress to have an extra month to pass its appropriations bills without having to cut pay for critical government services.

Sessions also joined the majority of House Republicans in voting against certifying the 2020 presidential election. Only two candidates for speaker, Emmer and Georgia’s Rep. Austin Scott, voted to certify the election.

Sessions voted in line with his party on many of their marquee bills this year, including the Secure the Border Act, which would harden the border and impose stricter penalties on irregular border crossings. The bill evolved from a border plan concocted by the Texas Republican delegation and passed with their blessing.

Texas Democrats pounced Friday on Sessions’ voting record to blast him as a far-right extremist who won’t be able to work across the aisle.

“Sessions’s allegiance to the MAGA agenda has only hurt his constituents here in Texas,” the Texas Democratic Party said in a statement shortly after Sessions announced his speaker bid. “Over and over again – from the local to national level – MAGA Republicans in leadership have proven they are unwilling to meet the needs of the moment.”

A spokesperson for Sessions responded in a statement that electing a Texas Republican “will emphasize the different visions each party holds for America.”

“While Texas Democrats support an open southern border, Republicans advocate for border security and strengthened national security,” the statement said. “Congressman Sessions will address this vital issue and uphold our Rule of Law.”

What’s his pitch?

Sessions is campaigning heavily on his record at the NRCC and the House Rules Committee. In a letter making his pitch to his fellow Republicans over the weekend, Sessions said his time atop those committees demonstrated the unifying leadership required to bring together a fractured and ideologically diverse Republican conference.

Unifying the conference is a top priority for many Republicans, who view the extended speaker fight as a national embarrassment. Several Texas Republicans said they would back whoever could win and let the House get on with its business.

Sessions also emphasized that he had a strong conservative record, voting with the party on many of its key issues, including the Second Amendment, the border and federal spending. And he pointed to the 2010 red wave as a testament to his ability to win electorally — a major concern within the conference after last year’s lackluster gains for the party and with a competitive presidential election next year.

“We must select a candidate who can win on the House floor, lead conservative solutions to the problems facing our nation, and win an expanded majority in 2024,” Sessions said in his letter. “Proven accomplishment is important.”

Who is backing him?

No one has publicly endorsed Sessions yet. The overwhelming majority of Republicans are withholding endorsements until Monday night’s candidate’s forum.

If Sessions can get the entire Texas delegation to back him, he would rise considerably in the rankings. Texas has more Republican members than any state, and Texans have traditionally liked to band together.

But that may not happen this round. The delegation reflects the wide ideological spectrum within the party and has seen its share of centrist-ultraconservative feuding. When the party was split between House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Freedom Caucus Rep. Jim Jordan for its speaker nominee, Texans were divided between the two candidates as well. U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, announced Monday he was backing Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida.