Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives are planning to fly to Washington, D.C. Monday in an attempt to halt the state Legislature from advancing controversial Republican-backed election bills during the ongoing special legislative session, sources close to state Democrats told NBC News and The New York Times Monday afternoon.
If the Democrats succeed with their plan, it would be the second walkout from the House’s minority party in less than two months, as House Democrats previously succeeded in killing a previous controversial Republican election bill with a late-night walkout at the end of the regular session that denied the House the required two-thirds quorum of members present needed to hold votes according to the Texas Constitution.
It would be the first time Texas Democrats fled out of state since 2003, when a group of House Democrats left Austin for Oklahoma to delay Republican redistricting; Democrats eventually returned back to Texas and were unable to stop the redistricting plan in the end.
Both the Times and NBC have reported that House Democrats plan to gather on two private chartered flights to D.C. later today with no return date in sight, ahead of reports that both House and Senate Republicans were intent on moving forward with floor votes on each chamber’s election reform bills later this week.
There are 67 Democrats in the Texas House among the 150 total state representatives, so at least 51 House Democrats would need to leave the state by the time the House reconvenes Tuesday morning in order to deny the chamber the two-thirds quorum needed to pass votes.
Former U.S. Senate candidate Democrat Beto O'Rourke confirmed state Democrats' plan to flee the state in an email to supporters of his campaign to block the Republican election bills and to push the U.S. Congress to pass a Democrat-backed election reform bill, the "For the People Act."
"The Texas House Democrats are using their political power to stop voter suppression and lead on expanding voting rights," O'Rourke wrote Monday. "They are about to take the extraordinary step of leaving the state and are making their way to our nation's capitol to ensure we can pass the For the People Act — the single greatest opportunity to protect the right to vote in America."
Republicans have insisted reforms are needed to strengthen penalties against voter fraud and to limit new voting practices like 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting implemented in Harris County which conservatives argue could make fraud more likely, although there’s no evidence that either reform led to any fraud whatsoever. Democrats argue the Republican-backed election measures filed last week, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, amount to unnecessary restrictions that would make it tougher to vote in Texas and would disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic Texans.
Gov. Greg Abbott was furious that Democrats killed state Republicans’ last attempt at an election reform bill, which led him to immediately call for the current special session. He also retaliated by issuing a veto to block all funding for the Texas Legislature, a move that would hurt the over 2,100 staffers who work in Legislative offices and policy research teams more than state lawmakers themselves, whose $600 monthly salaries are specifically protected in the Texas Constitution.
Austin Democratic state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez hinted this weekend during an MSNBC interview that a second quorum-breaking walkout might be possible, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said recently that he might take stricter measures to prevent a future walkout attempt than he did during the regular session.
Phelan has the authority to order state law enforcement to arrest House members who go into hiding with the intent of halting House businesses, but state police would be unable to arrest lawmakers if they can't be caught before they flee beyond state lines. In 2003, Then-House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered the Texas Rangers to arrest Democratic House members for breaking quorum, but since the Dems were in Oklahoma the Rangers couldn’t cross the border to round them up.
There’s no telling how long House Democrats plan to stay out of state in order to block the bills. The current special session can’t extend past August 6 as special sessions can’t last more than 30 days, but Abbott could always call for another special session immediately afterward to raise the election reform issue once again.
There are already plans underway for a fall special session to handle redistricting once the pandemic-delayed U.S. Census results are delivered in September, but Abbott could call as many more special sessions between now and then as he wants. If lawmakers hold out too long, they’ll miss their chance to re-authorize the funding for the legislative branch Abbott vetoed last month; Abbott’s veto covers legislative branch salaries for two years starting on September 1 of this year.
Updated 3:10 p.m.:
Leaders of the Texas House Democrats' walkout movement confirmed that Democrats had fled the state Monday afternoon in a joint statement from House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair Rafael Anchía, Texas Legislative Black Caucus Chair Nicole Collier, Legislative Study Group Caucus Chair Garnet Coleman and Houston's own state Rep. Senfronia Thompson.
"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," the Democrats wrote. "We are not taking the fight to our nation's Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas."
Minutes later, Phelan issued a statement of his own chastising his Democratic colleagues for breaking quorum yet again.
"These actions put at risk state funding that will deny thousands of hard-working staff members and their families a paycheck, health benefits, and retirement investment so that legislators who broke quorum can flee to Washington D.C. in private jets," Phelan wrote.
"The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House Rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda," he continued.
"The special session clock is ticking — I expect all Members to be present in our Capitol in order to immediately get to work on these issues," Phelan concluded, without any mention of how, or if, he could make that happen.
Abbott finally chimed in later Monday afternoon with some scolding of his own, demanding that Democrats "put aside partisan political games and get back to the job they were elected to do."
"Texas Democrats' decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve," Abbott wrote. "As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state."
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