Thirty-two years after arriving in Congress, Rep. Joe Barton is reinventing himself.
Long-known as one of the Texas delegation’s most conservative voices, the Arlington Republican has in recent months began sitting down with Democrats to overhaul the Department of Energy. He’s come out in favor of the Dream Act and rebuked his home-state governor over a disagreement on Hurricane Harvey aid.
On Thursday, Barton joined a dozen other Republican lawmakers demanding House leadership find a legislative solution for young people living in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. More than 120,000 such young people are in Texas.
“There’s no way you should try to send somebody back who came here as a child with their parents and who’s grown up here in the United States. They’re Americans,” Barton said in an interview with the Star-Telegram this week.
“Give them an earned path to legalization and an earned path to citizenship, they’ll be productive citizens for 40-50-60-70-years. They’ll be an asset to this country,” he added.
Barton, 68, plans to seek another House term next year, even as three other veteran Texas House Republicans this month announced plans to retire.
“Much work remains in Washington and I hope to carry on the torch for the 6th District,” Barton said of the decision.
Barton’s North Texas district is changing, and his political evolution could reflect his shifting district.
That district supported President Donald Trump with 54 percent of its vote in 2016, down from the 58 percent it gave Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
Its population is 52 percent white, 20 percent black, and 22 percent Hispanic, according to the Almanac of American Politics. When he first ran, the district was 10 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic.
Though strategists from both parties say it’s still solidly red territory this election cycle, it could become a target for Democrats in years to come, thanks to changing demographics that will likely add more minority voters.
“Arlington is a very diverse city now,” said former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, who served with Barton in Congress and ran the Democrats’ House campaign arm from 1999 to 2003. “Unless he gets some relief by the Texas legislature and they redraw the districts, he’ll probably have a significant challenge sometime in the next few years.”
Barton is a member of the Tea Party Caucus, a group of conservative grassroots lawmakers, and has a 93 percent lifetime ranking with the American Conservative Union.
He’s already drawn several 2018 Democratic challengers, including Latina public relationship specialist Jana Lynne Sanchez and locksmith Justin Snider. Both have attended Barton’s recent town hall meetings, attacking the Republican as too conservative for the district and criticizing his views on climate change.
Barton, who was an oil and gas consultant before joining Congress, has said he’s skeptical that man-made carbon emissions contribute to global warming.
Like other Republicans, Barton’s town halls have gotten rowdier since President Donald Trump was elected. Barton, who was fired at but not wounded during a congressional baseball game practice earlier this year, has adapted to that, too.
After telling an attendee at a town hall in March to “shut up,” Barton revamped the style of the events, adding a question lottery system and a time. At an August event in Crowley, he went out of his way to introduce and take a question from a Democratic opponent, who sat in the front row.
Barton is also adjusting to change in Washington.
He chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2004 to 2007. He sought that role once again this year when Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich, reached the GOP’s committee chairman term limit. Barton lost to Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Two other Texas Republican chairmen, Reps. Jeb Hensarling at Financial Services and Lamar Smith at Science, Space, and Technology , announced plans to retire this year, when they will reach term limits of their chairmanships. Also leaving will be Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
Barton is going a different route. He’s now leading the Energy and Commerce Committee’s project to overhaul the Department of Energy, a job that requires him to work with Democrats.
Even if members on the committee can find consensus, there’s no guarantee the Senate would even take it up.
Democrats on the committee say Barton, despite being criticized by government watchdog groups for coziness with the energy industry, is someone they can work with.
“Joe’s a nice guy… he can reach across party lines,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, who serves on the committee with Barton. “He did that when he was chair the last decade, and he can do it again.”
Barton still sides with conservatives. In September, when the House voted on Hurricane Harvey relief, Barton joined the vast majority of his House colleagues in supporting a hurricane aid package, but later voted against the final bill because it was tied to an increase in the debt ceiling,
“As much as I want to help Texas, I can’t vote for something that’s a blank check on the debt,” said Barton said at the time.
But Barton later took the lead on a task force to help oversee that relief, along with Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.
When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott criticized the delegation for not pushing hard enough to get Texas-specific funding included in a different aid package, Barton, the longest-serving member of the delegation, rebuked the governor.
“Greg and I go way back,” Barton said of the exchange.” It’s a little easier to talk straight to people when you’ve got a little experience under your belt.”