To begin their first full-day of self-imposed exile in Washington, D.C., the Texas House Democrats who fled the state Monday afternoon spoke in front of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday to explain why they felt they had no choice but to skip town to prevent Texas Republicans from forcing through new election restrictions.
According to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, 57 House Democrats informed House leadership Tuesday morning they were out of state and requested that their voting machines be locked until their return, making it official that the 150-member House didn’t have the constitutionally required 100 members present to pass legislation.
Turner and his fellow Texas Dems say they plan to spend their time in D.C. to push President Joe Biden and Democrats in the U.S. Senate to move more aggressively to pass nationwide voting rights legislation that’s been held up for weeks due to opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona.
“Our intent is to stay out and kill this bill this session,” Turner said, “and use the intervening time — I think 24 or 25 days now — before the end of the session to implore the folks in this building behind us to pass federal voting rights legislation to protect voters in Texas and across the country."
The House Democrats moved quickly to flee the state after Republican leaders in the state House and Senate moved quickly over the weekend in the early days of the recently begun special legislative session to force through their versions of “election integrity” bills, which increase penalties for voter fraud, add new hurdles for those wanting to vote by mail and outlaw Harris County innovations like drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting heavily used by minority voters.
Republicans swear those new rules are all in the name of making Texas elections fairer, but critics point out that Texas is just the latest conservative-led state to attempt to add voting restrictions after former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat to Biden, and who has convinced a majority of Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen from him due to alleged voter fraud.
House Democrats similarly walked out to block what they viewed as civil rights-infringing voting restrictions at the end of the last legislative session in May, which prompted a furious Gov. Greg Abbott to immediately call for a special session of legislative overtime and to take the drastic step of vetoing all funding for the state’s legislative branch effective September 1.
Dallas state Rep. Rafael Anchía, leader of the House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, claimed Gov. Greg Abbott was to blame for the Democrats’ latest walkout effort.
“When you start the process in such a coercive way, when you say ‘I am going to be the absolute ruler of the state of Texas and defund the legislative branch,’ you have poisoned the entire process,” Anchía said. “We as Democrats, we were united. We said we are going to kill any undemocratic efforts in the state legislatures, and if that meant leaving the state, we were going to do it.”
“We are happy to work on bipartisan proposals that expand the right to vote, that make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in the state of Texas,” Anchia said, “but that is not what we saw even at the outset of this process." He swore that Texas Democrats wouldn’t allow the “Big Lie” that Trump didn’t really lose the 2020 election to allow Texas to join the ranks of other conservative states that restricted voting following Trump’s defeat.
Houston’s own state Rep. Senfronia Thompson put it even more bluntly. “The Republicans in this Legislature may have changed the Messiah from Jesus to Trump, but I haven’t,” she said.
“I’m gonna make sure that I do everything I can do so that my constituents’ rights will not be stripped from them because what [Republicans] believe in is a lie,” Thompson continued. “Trump lost the election, and they need to tell the people of this country the truth. And if they don’t, I’m going to.”
In a Monday night interview with Austin’s KVUE, Abbott urged House Speaker Dade Phelan to order that all the Democrats who fled the state be arrested by state law enforcement (which can’t happen until they’re back in Texas).
“In addition to that, however,” Abbott continued, “I can and I will continue to call a special session after special session after special session all the way up until the election next year.”
“As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested,” Abbott threatened. “They will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done.”
Dallas-area State Rep. Rhetta Bowers admitted she and her colleagues know “we are living on borrowed time in Texas, and [know that] we can’t stay here indefinitely to run out the clock to stop Republican anti-voter bills."
“That’s why we need Congress to act now,” she said.
When asked about what if any compromise from Republicans might convince the House Democrats to return to the Lone Star State to get back to work legislating, Turner said Abbott’s veto of legislative funding was the first hurdle to returning to the negotiating table in their view. Texas Democrats have asked the Texas Supreme Court to declare Abbott’s veto unconstitutional, and are still awaiting a decision on the matter from the state’s highest court.
“The first place to start would be for the governor to stand down on that, and then we can start talking,” Turner said.
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