Gov. Rick Perry has canceled $1.3 million in state contracts with private lobbying firms who represented Texas before Congress.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who worked to end the contracts, hailed the decision, saying taxpayers already pay elected officials to represent them.

State Democratic lawmakers also approved.

“Well, it’s about time,” House Democratic Caucus leader Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said. “House Democrats have been calling on Gov. Perry, Speaker (Tom) Craddick and Lt. Governor (David) Dewhurst to cancel these exorbitant and unnecessary lobby contracts since 2003, when we first offered legislation to stop wasting more than $1.1 million state taxpayer dollars on two Abramoff/DeLay cronies. “For four years, House Republicans voted to protect these corrupt lobbyists,” Dunnam said. “I am happy to see that our efforts have finally paid off.”

Questions had been raised about the contracts with Cassidy & Associates and Federalist Group because of the firms’ ties to convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is facing state charges in a campaign finance investigation.

“I am glad we are cleaning up the mess in Washington; but unfortunately, here in Texas these same lobbyists will still have special access to the back halls of the Capitol where everyday Texans cannot go,” state Rep. Pete P. Gallego, D-Alpine, said, referring to a recent House Rules fight that saw the tabling of a Democrat-sponsored measure that would have restricted access to lawmakers by lobbyists. “Texas House Democrats have a lot more to do in the continuing fight for more open and honest government.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who serves as chairman of the Legislative Study Group, also commented on the contracts’ cancellations.

“The incestuous nature of the money game through the use of policy initiatives has got to stop, and this is a good first step,” Coleman said. “We still must cut out the rest of the cancer that has grown in our state and federal government.”

The cancellations are effective Feb. 11. Letters informing the firms of the decision were mailed Jan. 12, said Robert Black, a spokesman for Perry’s office, told the Associated Press.

Craddick speaks out on close call in speaker’s race

AUSTIN (AP) - Texas State House Speaker Tom Craddick said the attempted coup that nearly ended his leadership showed him that he’d lost touch with some lawmakers.

Now, the Midland Republican is vowing not to retaliate against fellow Republicans who turned against him. Instead, he told the Dallas Morning News that the leadership will “try to do a better job of listening to what the members are trying to tell us, and communicate both ways.”

The remarks were his first public comments on the race since Jan. 9, when he narrowly faced down a challenge by Republican Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie.

Craddick had named Pitts two years ago to chair the House Appropriations Committee. Pitts said he launched his challenge because he wanted to end the fierce partisanship, arm-twisting and micromanagement of bills under Craddick’s rule.

Craddick never faced a direct ballot on his leadership, but a procedural litmus vote showed he had six more supporters than Pitts. That prompted Pitts to withdraw.

Still to come are Craddick’s all-important announcement of who will lead House committees. That’s expected to provide the first signs of how open and forgiving he’ll be to Pitts and others who moved against him.

Perry gets earful in meeting with Democrats

WASHINGTON (AP) - Gov. Rick Perry slipped into Washington and met secretly Friday with the state’s Democratic House members, who gave him an earful about his role in redrawing the state’s districts and the price Texas paid for it.

Perry’s meeting with the Democrats was the first he’s had with them since he took office, several of the members said.

Members described the meeting as frank and candid, at times testy, though never hostile. They said they reminded Perry, a Republican, that a redistricting plan he helped push through the Texas Legislature had cost their state possible chairmanships of the Agriculture, Homeland Security and Rules committees.

“We told him now that we are in majority … we control a lot of money,” said Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

Perry did not hold a news conference to discuss his meeting with Democrats or the contracts, and his office did not issue news releases announcing his plans to visit Washington. Requests for a briefing from Perry were declined.

“It was a positive meeting, and he looks forward to meeting with them down the road,” Black said.

The Democrats invited Perry to meet with them after Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio brought Ed Perez, director of the Office of State-Federal Relations, to their weekly luncheon.

The meeting turned into angry complaints about what members see as the partisanship of Perez’s office, which reports to Perry, and cooperation from the governor’s office. The lobbying firms were contracted through Perez’s office.

Perry called three special sessions to help push through a plan orchestrated by DeLay to redraw the state’s congressional districts so Republicans could be more easily elected. As a result, two Democrats who were in line for House committee chairmanships lost re-election, and another retired.

In the Democratic-controlled Congress, El Paso Rep. Silvestre Reyes of the Intelligence Committee is the only chairman from Texas, which now has 19 Republicans and 13 Democrats in the U.S. House.

“He didn’t dispute it, but I can’t say he said, ‘Yes, you’re right,’ ” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

Rep. Nick Lampson of Stafford, who beat a write-in candidate last year to win DeLay’s seat, and Waco Rep. Chet Edwards complained about Perry campaigning against them.

Edwards had a staffer read a statement to Perry because he recently had larynx surgery and can’t speak. Edwards questioned a campaign contribution to his opponent from one of the lobbying firms working for the state.

In response, Perry “indicated they were finished with redistricting. He wanted to go forward not backwards. He expressed interest in developing a better working relationship with everyone,” Johnson said.

She said the Democrats also raised a long list of other topics, including children’s health insurance, education and nursing home conditions. She said the Democrats plan to give him a report on some of their concerns and issues that are affecting Texas.

Members said Perry told them he would meet with them again and invited the Democrats to Austin.

“The beauty of it is we met,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got to get it together. We’ve got to help everybody.”

Perry also met with Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt concerning underinsured Texans and with the Republican Governor’s Association to discuss some “fund-raising issues,” Perry’s office said.

Bush administration reverses course on warrantless

wiretapping

program

WASHINGTON (AP) - A year after disclosure of a domestic spying program that President Bush maintained was within his authority to operate, the administration shifted its position and turned to an independent panel of federal judges to provide oversight.

The program allowed the National Security Agency to monitor phone calls and e-mails between the United States and other countries when a link to terrorism was suspected. Bush secretly authorized the program shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told senators in a letter Wednesday that “any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”

Gonzales announced the change on the eve of his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his first since the committee came under control of Democrats after the November elections. Congressional intelligence committees had already been briefed on the shift.

Gonzales said Bush would not reauthorize the program once it expires. The court already has approved at least one warrant to conduct surveillance involving a person suspected of having ties to al-Qaida or an associated terror group, Justice officials said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the administration is satisfied with new rules adopted by the FISA court to address administration officials’ concerns about national security. Snow could not explain why those concerns were not addressed before the program began.

After The New York Times disclosed the program’s existence, many lawmakers and civil libertarians questioned whether it was constitutional. The administration vigorously defended the program as essential to national security.

Although the secret court was established precisely to review requests for domestic surveillance warrants, the White House insisted that such oversight was not required by law and, in fact, would slow efforts to stop terrorists. Bush maintained the warrantless program’s existence was “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.”

Last August, a federal judge in Detroit declared the spying program unconstitutional, saying it violated the rights to free speech and privacy and the separation of powers. In October, a three-judge panel of the Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled that the administration could keep the program in place while it appeals the Detroit decision.

That appeal, which was scheduled to be heard on Jan. 31, will now likely be rendered moot, said one Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the government has not yet officially decided whether to drop its case.

Attorneys for the department notified the appeals court in a separate letter Wednesday that “the government plans to file promptly papers … addressing the implications of this development on the litigation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government over the program, called the Justice Department’s announcement “a quintessential flip-flop.”

“The NSA was operating illegally and this 11th-hour ploy is clearly an effort to avoid judicial and congressional scrutiny,” said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero. “Despite this adroit back flip, the constitutional problems with the president’s actions remain unaddressed.”

Cornyn appointed to top

subcommittee spot

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has been selected to serve as the top Republican on the Armed Services Airland subcommittee, according to an announcement by committee leaders on Friday. In addition, Cornyn will remain a member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee.

“I’m honored to serve as ranking member of this subcommittee, as it has a key role in the oversight of Army and Air Force programs critical to our national defense,” Cornyn said. “Texas plays an important part in the development of many of these programs, including the Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-22 and the Army’s Future Combat System. So serving on this subcommittee will not only help me ensure that our national security needs are met, but that Texas will continue to stand at the forefront of defending our nation.”

The Airland subcommittee has jurisdiction over the majority of Army and Air Force procurement programs, including the Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-22 and the Army’s Future Combat System. The subcommittee also has jurisdiction over Navy and Marine Corps tactical aviation programs, and Army and Air Force National Guard and Reserve programs.

The Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, which Cornyn previously chaired, has jurisdiction over several areas important to Texas and the nation. It oversees programs to counter terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The subcommittee also has jurisdiction over chemical weapons demilitarization programs.