Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives left the state Monday afternoon en route to Washington, D.C., in a bid to again deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass new voting restrictions with 26 days left in a special legislative session called largely for that purpose.
Upping the ante in both the legislative fight at home and the national debate over voting rights, most House Democrats boarded two planes out of Austin headed for the U.S. capital without a set return date. At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives — the number needed to break quorum — were in the process of leaving Monday afternoon, most arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Monday to board chartered flights that departed around 3:10 p.m.
The House is set to reconvene Tuesday morning, but the absent Democrats would mean there will not be enough members present to conduct business under House rules.
“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” Democratic leaders said in a joint statement released Monday.
With the national political spotlight on Texas’ efforts to further restrict voting, the Democratic exodus offers them a platform to continue pleading with Congress to act on restoring federal protections for voters of color. In Texas, the decamping will mark a more aggressive stance by Democrats to block Republican legislation further tightening the state’s voting rules as the GOP works against thinning statewide margins of victory.
Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other conservative priorities on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11-item agenda for the special session.
Some Democrats hope their absence will give them leverage to force good-faith negotiations with Republicans, who they say have largely shut them out of negotiations over the voting bill. Both chambers advanced their legislation out of committees on party-line votes after overnight hearings, passing out the bills early Sunday morning after hearing hours of testimony mostly against the proposals and just a few days after making their revived proposals public. The bills were expected to hit the House and Senate floors for votes this week.
Even if Democratic lawmakers stay out of state for the next few weeks, the governor could continue to call 30-day sessions or add voting restrictions to the agenda when the Legislature takes on the redrawing of the state’s political maps later this summer.
Monday’s mass departure follows a Democratic walkout in May that kept Republicans from passing their priority voting bill at the end of the regular legislative session. For weeks, Democrats had indicated that skipping town during the special session remained an option as Republicans prepared for a second attempt at tightening the state’s voting laws.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement later Monday that the chamber “will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum…”
If a quorum is not present when the House convenes Tuesday, any House member can move to make what’s known as a call of the House to “to secure and maintain a quorum” to consider a certain piece of legislation, resolution or motion, under chamber rules. That motion must be seconded by 15 members and ordered by a majority vote. If that happens, the missing Democrats will become legislative fugitives.
“All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained,” the House rules state. “The house shall determine on what conditions they shall be discharged.”
It’s unclear, though, what options Phelan may have to compel Democrats to return to the Legislature if they’re out of state.
Past experience would suggest that his options are basically nil. The DC police and the FBI are not going to be rounding them up and putting them on planes.
This is both a fast-moving story, and one that will play out over who knows how long. I’m probably not going to be able to keep up with every story and hot take out there, so feel free to browse the Internet or just scroll through Twitter – if you’re anything like me, you’ll have all the content you can consume and then some. I’m going to highlight what I think are the main salient points:
– What is the exit strategy here? That has always been my question. It was clear that the 2003 Senate Dems didn’t really have one, though one could argue that if they had held out a little longer they might have been able to scuttle the 2003 re-redistricting for the 2004 cycle. Maybe they can negotiate some concessions from Speaker Phelan in return for a promise that they’ll stay put for this session and the next one on redistricting. Maybe that’s a pipe dream. I have no idea. I hope they do.
– This is all about PR at this point. The main thing the Dems have going for them is that their action is extremely popular with their base – if this doesn’t help them with fundraising, nothing will – and there’s nothing on the special session agenda that has appeal to anyone who isn’t a Republican primary voter. (With one exception, which I’ll get to later.) The bottom line here is that they will portray themselves as fighting for a principle, while Republicans will claim they are cowardly running away. There’s no real question about how each side will perceive things, but there is room to affect the lower-information voters. If Dems can look good to them, they will have achieved a key objective.
– Does this help move Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema on national voting rights legislation? I have no idea. It can’t hurt, I suppose. For sure, if an end result is the passage of a voting rights bill, which would necessitate some alteration to the filibuster, that would be a huge, titanic, earth-shaking victory for the Dems, no matter what else happens in Austin. I would not hold my breath, but the Dems are clearly shooting the moon. You can’t say they’re not giving it their all.
– How long can they hold out? Remember, being in Washington DC means not being home, not being with family, not having a whole lot of control over one’s daily routine. Once the adrenaline wears off, and the reality of having to hold out until at least August 6 kicks in, this can very easily become a slog, and just keeping morale up, while also trying to win that PR battle, will be a chore. It’s also got to be expensive – there are no accommodations in DC that will rival the Ardmore Holiday Inn, I suspect. Part of that exit strategy I mentioned above is making sure the inevitable return at least looks like it’s on their terms, and not because they had run out of options or money or resolve, or because they were losing the PR battle. That’s the other end of the spectrum from the “getting a federal voting rights bill passed” side.
– The issue of restoring funds for the legislative branch will remain unresolved while the Dems are away. Maybe the Supreme Court will feel compelled to address the matter, or maybe they will be like “hey, y’all could totally solve this without us, we’re gonna keep out of it”. I hope someone is communicating with the employees who are still out in the cold right now.
– Like I said, none of the rest of the agenda, including items that Abbott may be planning to add, are anything that the average voter cares about. It’s all terrible from the Dems’ perspective, and the fact that things like the anti-trans sports bill is also hung up is a bonus. That’s the one item that has polled reasonably well, however, and it would not surprise me to see the Republicans make some noise about it. I feel confident saying that’s a long-term loser for them, but all we care about right now is the next 30 days, and the next 15 or so months after that.
For now, Dems are riding high, and they will get a lot of positive attention as well as the usual hate. How long that lasts, we’ll see. Even by this time next week, they may be struggling to get news coverage. It’s going to be a hell of a month. The Chron, the Signal, and pretty much every other news outlet (for now) has more.