Second Round of Overtime for Texas Legislature Sees Some Democrats Trickling Back to Austin

A contingent of Texas Democrats has vowed to keep the state Legislature paralyzed, but how long can they keep it together?
A contingent of Texas Democrats has vowed to keep the state Legislature paralyzed, but how long can they keep it together? Screenshot
The second straight special session of the Texas Legislature has gotten off to a predictably slow start given that enough House Democrats who fled the state for Washington, D.C. last month to block GOP-backed voting restrictions have still refused to return to Austin to deny the House the 100 out of 150 members it needs to have a quorum and actually conduct business.

But it's undeniable that cracks are starting to form in the once seemingly rock-solid resolve of that group of 57 House Democrats, as a handful of Democratic quorum breakers have headed back to the House floor in recent days while a group of 26 has committed to stay in D.C. as long as there’s even a glimmer of hope that the U.S. Senate could somehow squeeze in a vote on federal voting rights legislation ahead of its August recess that would push back against the Republican “election integrity” bill that will all but inevitably pass in some form or another.

While D.C. experts think a U.S. Senate vote on federal voting rights legislation seems extremely unlikely before the chamber goes on August vacation, likely later this week, House Democrats had also hoped the Texas Supreme Court would lend them a hand by blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of funding for the Legislature, a move he made to pressure Democrats to show up to Austin and allow the passage of the Republican voter bill critics have claimed would add more barriers to voting for disabled and minority Texans, and that was clearly inspired by former President Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him despite no evidence whatsoever of widespread voter fraud in Texas.

However, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court declined to block Abbott’s Legislative funding veto on Monday, arguing in its ruling that the funding fight was a “political dispute within the legislative branch” since the veto could be overruled by a two-thirds majority vote of both the House and Senate, and “not an issue of separation of powers that we can decide,” rejecting Democrats’ claims that Abbott’s veto was an example of overreach from the executive branch.

When Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan gaveled-in the second special session, the chamber still lacked the 100 members needed to pass new laws. A majority of the absentee lawmakers were House Democrats, but even a handful of Republicans didn’t show up for the first day of the new session. One of them, state Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) was confirmed to have COVID-19, but that didn’t stop Clardy from showing up to work Monday, where he voted present from a secure device in an isolated private room of the Capitol.

Among the other lawmakers who were present Monday were several of the formerly absentee Texas Democrats, including former speaker pro tempore Joe Moody (D-El Paso), and state Reps. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) and Mary González (D-Clint). By Monday, 95 representatives were present at the Capitol, just five shy of a quorum.

Moody’s return came after Phelan stripped Moody’s speaker pro tempore role away from him during the first special session’s quorum break as a bit of retribution from the Beaumont Republican. Talarico, the young Austin-area Democrat and vocal progressive lawmaker who could face a tough reelection fight in his competitive home district, wrote on Facebook that he’s back in Austin “to clean up Greg Abbott’s latest messes from COVID to ERCOT.”

But Talarico’s Democratic colleague Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson) wasn’t having it. She blasted Talarico, Moody and González by name on Twitter Monday night for getting the House one step closer to a quorum and accused her fellow Democrats of throwing the rest of them under the bus.

In an angry tweetstorm, Ramos mentioned it was especially frustrating that any of the Democrats who broke quorum during this summer’s first special session came back to the House given that a Travis County judge responded to a lawsuit from a handful of Texas Democrats Monday with a ruling that blocked state law enforcement officers from arresting absentee House members and forcibly returning them to the House floor.

However, that victory was short-lived: Abbott and Phelan filed an emergency request to the Texas Supreme Court to block the Travis County order on Tuesday morning, and hours later,, the state Supreme Court issued a temporary stay to allow for House Democrats in the state to be rounded up if Phelan and his Republican House majority decide to go that route.

A majority of the House members present Monday authorized Phelan to issue a “call of the House,” a procedural move that locks the doors of the House while it’s in session and requires lawmakers to get permission from the Speaker in order to leave the building. They stopped short of voting to authorize Texas law enforcement to find the missing Democrats hiding out within the state (as the Republicans previously approved during the last special session), but given Tuesday morning’s ruling from the state Supreme Court, a vote on sending the cops to round-up Democrats in hiding could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Texas Senate has been humming along passing legislation doomed to sit in limbo as long as the House lacks a quorum, just like the chamber did last session. With all state Senators in attendance — including the Democrats — Patrick’s Senate has since Saturday passed bills authorizing extra retirement checks for former Texan teachers, a bail reform bill proposed by Abbott that would make it harder for those accused of violent crimes to get out of jail pre-trial, and two property tax relief bills authored by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).

Patrick has once again vowed that his Senate will pass each and every one of Abbott’s priority bills “over and over again until the House finally has a quorum.”

State Reps. Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston) and Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) are among the 26 House Dems who have vowed to stay in D.C. as long as the U.S. Senate is still in session to push Congress’ upper chamber to approve sweeping Democrat-backed federal voting rights laws that would likely block the Texas Republican-backed election bill from going into effect.

Of the 31 other Democrats who stayed in D.C. during the first special session, Johnson said many of them returned to Texas to check on their families and businesses, but weren’t necessarily planning on heading back to Austin and granting the House a quorum to pass new bills any time soon.

When the Houston Press asked Johnson about a Texas Monthly report that two quorum-breaking Democrats, state Reps. Julie Johnson (D-Farmers Branch) and Jessica González (D-Dallas) spent much of last week on a European vacation in Portugal, he bristled at the notion that indicated the Democrats weren’t as unified as they had been in weeks prior. He didn’t name either Johnson or González specifically, but told the Press all of the quorum breakers were still participating in strategy and planning calls remotely via Zoom last week.

“I can tell you, everyone they accused of being on vacation — that I don’t know anything about — I know they were on every call that we had,” Johnson said. He also threw in the claim that “I happen to know that there were several Republicans that also went on vacation” while the first special session was still underway, but said “It’s not my job to go out there and blast them out.”

“I can tell you, everyone they accused of being on vacation — that I don’t know anything about — I know they were on every call that we had." - State Rep. Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston)

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Reynolds acknowledged to the Press that “it’s unlikely” that the U.S. Senate will be able to pass the voting bills Texas Democrats have been pressuring them to prioritize before the end of the current Texas special session, even if Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gets senators to vote on the measure this week.

“I’m very practical and realistic,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be a tall order. Even though Schumer would bring it to the floor it’s unlikely that they’ll have Republicans to support it.”

If U.S. Senate Democrats can’t get all of their 50 members and at least ten Republicans to support their voting legislation (and it’s astronomically unlikely that many Republicans would vote in favor of it), one of the Senate’s moderates Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) or Krysten Sinema (D-Arizona) would have to approve nuking the Senate filibuster rule that requires all but a limited number of budget-related bills to be passed with at least 60 votes, and neither Manchin nor Sinema has budged on their unwillingness to do so.

“Assuming that doesn’t happen, then we’ll have to reassess what our options are, because at that point it’ll look pretty dim,” Reynolds said. “We’ll have to reassess our plan of action, including going back to Austin at that point.”
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards